There’s one thing for sure about Kenneth Lancaster, he loves a good joke.
That’s saying something for someone who is 86 years old, served his country in the Korean War and now has a chance to take the trip of a lifetime.
“I’m excited,” said Ken, the name most people know. He added in his typical style, “And it takes a lot to get me excited.”
And even though he served in the Navy, Lancaster still doesn’t like to board an airplane and fly.
“I wasn’t in the air wing,” he emphasizes.
But that fear is about to be put to rest when Lancaster heads to Washington, D.C., as part of the Central Valley Honor Flight program. His name was selected just recently to be a part of the program and his daughter, Patricia Hatcher, said she had to jump into action to make it happen.
“I think I saw a video of the veterans coming back from one of the trips,” said Patricia. “It touched me really deep and they said it was a trip of a lifetime. It kept me up at night sometimes.”
Knowing her father’s reluctance to board an airliner, she went and had a talk with him about the program and said he had been selected.
“I asked dad and the rest is history,” said Patricia.
Because it was just recent and plans are going quickly, Ken’s family is reaching out to the community to help defray some of the expenses of the trip. Though the flight is paid for, other expenses are not and the family is looking to raise about $2,000 to help with those costs and give Ken his trip of a lifetime. The biggest expense is paying for a chaperone, which is not included in the Honor Flight program.
They have set up a GoFundMe account where people can donate to help defray the costs.
That website is www.gofundme.com/ezc6d-help-a-korean-war-veteran.
Patricia also said if people would like to donate directly, they can contact her at (559) 706-0317 or by email at email@example.com.
Also involved in this effort is Ken’s grandson, Brandon Hatcher, as well as his wife, Evie Lancaster. It was Brandon who contacted this newspaper about the possibility of getting the word out to the community. The trip is scheduled to depart April 9 from Fresno and includes a full itinerary in Washington, D.C.
In the Navy
It was March 6, 1951 when, at the age of 19, Ken had graduated from Chowchilla High School and decided he wanted to serve his country. He was going to volunteer for the military and focus on the Air Force.
“Because I didn’t want the Army to get me,” joked Ken.
So he went to the post office in Merced and there were three tables of recruiters set up — Army, Air Force and Navy.
He went to the Air Force table and “he said they have a wait list of six months.”
The Navy recruiter overheard the conversation and said, “We’ll take you now.”
Ken joined the Navy.
He was sent to San Diego for basic training for 11 weeks. When he got out of basic, he came back to Chowchilla and married Evie. Then he left again.
“I felt like maybe I shouldn’t have married him,” said Evie, a comedian in her own rite. “Maybe he wouldn’t come back.”
After basic training — and getting married — Ken was assigned to the USS Chara, an ammunition ship. The ship was loaded with ammunition and then set sail for Japan, where it would be based for two years.
“For two years, we rearmed other ships off the cost of Korea,” said Ken.
They operated about 16 miles off the coast of Korea “because we knew the shore batteries wouldn’t hit us.”
That was critical since they were carrying a shipload of ammunition.
“It was stressful,” said Ken. “We were handling all kinds of ammunition.”
That would make anyone nervous, and Ken was no exception.
Ken said when the ammunition was loaded, they also loaded separate wooden cases with detonators that would later be placed into the bombs. They were very volatile, he said.
One time, the detonators were being brought out of the cargo hold of a ship on a net. The net had just about cleared the deck “and the cable broke,” he said.
The next fell all the way to the bottom of the ship.
“I remember turning white,” said Ken.
He turned to a chief petty officer, who said, “It wasn’t our time.”
And that was just one day.
After two years on the ship, Ken said his brother-in-law, who was also serving on an ammunition ship, applied for and received a transfer to the Seabees, the construction arm of the Navy.
“He suggested I do the same thing,” said Ken. “I’d do anything to get off that ship. Everybody hated it.”
The transfer came through and Ken was assigned to the Philippines, where he took part in building a Navy air base. Kind of ironic for someone who doesn’t like to fly.
He spent the next two years in the Philippines, meaning with the exception of leaves, he spent very little time with his new bride.
Back then, the only way to communicate with family was the old fashioned art of writing letters. Ken and Evie did it all the time.
“I was always eager to go to mail call to get a letter,” he said.
Evie said there were letters “always going back and forth.”
After serving his four years, Ken returned to Chowchilla and then later moved to Merced.
He worked in various places until finally settling down in Mariposa County where he was branch manger of Yosemite Bank. It’s a position he occupied for 16 years.
The couple lived in Lushmeadows and Ken was involved heavily in the community. He served on the boards of many organizations, including president of the Chamber of Commerce.
He’s also a life member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #6042 in Mariposa, where he served as commander for a year.
The modern world
Ken served in Korea at a tense time in the history of the world — and in some ways, things haven’t changed that much.
“We’re sitting on a powder keg,” said Ken of the current situation in North Korea. “I’m worried about what I’m seeing going on over there.”
Ken reflects back to the Korean War days when Gen. Douglas MacArthur had to amass troops to take back the peninsula.
“He amassed forces from different countries and started north and didn’t want to stop at the 38th parallel,” said Ken.
That parallel is now the most guarded area in the world — and one of the most dangerous. That was a result of the politicians stepping in and stopping MacArthur from continuing all the way to China.
“I have often thought of what it would be like today if he had continued on,” said Ken.
Ken, like so many other veterans, recognized that after World War II, it was the politicians who began running the wars rather than the generals. That mistake, he said, continues to this day.
“We couldn’t fight the war we wanted to fight,” said Ken. “It is frustrating.”
A proud family
Today, Ken is more focused on taking the Honor Flight and his family is just as excited for him to go.
“I am very proud,” said daughter Patricia. “I am just about to cry thinking about it. “I’m really, really proud of him. I have always been so proud of my dad.”
Ken said he will enjoy the trip and believes the highlight will be seeing the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of Unknowns.
“I’m really happy for him,” said his wife, Evie. “I’m thrilled to death he can do it.”
His grandson, Brandon, is also proud.
“I’m just happy he gets to go,” said Brandon. “I am a patriot and I love my country. I appreciate him serving and I appreciate all of the veterans.”
Brandon said he’s heard a lot of the stories about the war told by his grandfather and he appreciates the danger he faced during that time.
In fact, in his first year in Mariposa schools, he took his grandfather’s uniform for show and tell.
“I was pretty proud of that,” said Brandon.
“It doesn’t fit anymore,” said Ken, who always loves a humorous comment.