Veterans Day; A Family Affair

Nov 9, 2017

Bethel residents Elias Venes (left) and Joseph "Sonny" Venes (right) share their stories of military service in honor of Veterans Day 2017.
Credit Dean Swope / KYUK

In honor of Veteran’s Day on Saturday, we’re talking with veterans in our community about their military service. Elias Venes served in the Merchant Marines during World War II in the Pacific. His nephew, Joseph "Sonny" Venes served in the Marines in Vietnam. Here are their stories:

Elias Venes Transcript:

I’ve seen myself, firsthand, Manila Bay with all the sunken ships. I counted 27 ships from our floating troop ship and all around was little Jap subs and others. Some were sticking straight up in the sand and the destruction of Manila was horrific to see. Just a pile of trash.  

I am Elias Venes. I was born in 1928. I was born in Akiak, I was 18 years old when I left here. I’ve never been in any places, the biggest town I’ve ever been in was Bethel.  


When I joined the Merchant Seamen, I tried to sign up for a trip around the world on a passenger boat. I didn’t make it so I took the second boat that came along and I made it across the Pacific and back. I loved it. I would‘ve went around the world gladly if I could have made it.


The best thing was being out at sea, I guess, and seeing all the strange things. The sea has a lot to offer; lots of stuff you’ve never, ever saw before on land. I know the first time I was standing on the bow of the boat with a friend of mine, all of a sudden here comes fish out of the water and they flew along in front of us. Now, I heard of flying fish before, but I never believed it until I seen it.  


Well, everywhere I went they heard a lot of about Yup’iks cause I’m very proud to be a Yup’ik. My mother was a full blooded Eskimo; so was my grandmother. My dad was from Central Norway.


Well, first thing that comes to my mind was friends that I lost and one nephew that I should’ve served with. He was a master Sergeant in the Army and he was sent home in a C-46 airplane. The plane came down in the Mediterranean, so it’s hard to talk about. He was my very best friend. Also, he was my nephew. We were pretty much the same age; I should’ve been in there doing my part too. I’m sorry I couldn’t help them, maybe I could’ve done something.


Veterans Day. Well for one thing, it’s my sister’s birthday. That’s what I will always remember.

It’s a very important day and I honor people that served in the service. I had lots of friends that are gone, some from our village, but I’m the only one left of all the boys that I grew up with.


I think it’s very important to hear their stories because a lot of us really know how bad it was. War is terrible, anyplace. Anybodies war is terrible and any fight is terrible. We lost so many so you guys can be free and us too, me too.


I’m proud, too, of the short time that I served as a Merchant Seaman.


I don’t talk about it that much, unless something like this comes up where people, unless I’m having coffee and I got good friends and I could tell you stories all day. But I’m not used to being interviewed and I very seldom accept to be interviewed because some of the memories hurt pretty bad.


One of the hardest things I ever did was being a old man, and being the only one left. All your friends are gone. I had lots and lots of friends; world full of them. It’s hard to be alone sometimes.



Joseph "Sonny" Venes Transcript:

My name is Joseph Venes Jr. It’s pronounced liked the planet, but “es” at the end and I go by Sonny.

I was born in Bethel, raised in Nayak, Alaska, and then my family moved here in 1962. Been here ever since except for my military service: United States Navy.


June 3, 1967 I served in active duty till 1 March 1971. However, I was on inactive reserve until 7 June 1973 in case they needed me back; they would of called me back.


So I got out of high school when I was 18. I didn’t know what I was going to do. My dad one evening he said, “Son, why don’t you just go serve your country?” Just nonchalantly suggested it and that’s what I did. Served in the Vietnam conflict.  


I served aboard the USS Bennington. It was a land-to-submarine aircraft carrier that had our model of task force of maybe 8 other ships that we deployed to the Tonkin Gulf, and my job was a radio talker for the air boss up in primary flight control, which is the tower on board an aircraft carrier. I relayed messages from the air boss to the squadron commanders, the pilots, the chiefs down on deck. It was very interesting. I got to see all the launches everyday between our aircraft and the helicopter squadron that we had on board.


All wars are not good. I mean, thank goodness that we preserved our freedom here in this good old United States.


Sure there are times when you’re afraid, but you get over it because you’re trained to get over it or not be afraid. Just got to do what you got to do and pretty soon, before you know it, your mission is complete and luckily I’m safe.


I lost lots of classmates and good friends in Vietnam. It’s depressing. But as for me being afraid, of course, but it was also an adventure.


All the people I’ve met throughout my service, all great nice people. They don’t want to fight wars, they want to be friends! But in order to preserve our freedom here, you got to do what you got to do to defend the constitution of the United States.


It probably made me from being a young punk kid to being more responsible and more respectable and more grown up.


I came home March 17, 1971. There was a Saint Patrick’s Day party going on at the VFW. “Bumpy Elliot” was the commander and he stopped all the music, let everybody not dance and to be quiet, and he got everybody’s attention with his deep voice and welcomed me home out of the service. And that made me feel good. And he’s the only charter member left right now.


But I really treasure those moments and I wanted to bring it up because in my travels I’ve met maybe six or eight World War I Veterans, tons of World War II Veterans and Korean Veterans, and of course Vietnam Veterans. And they’re all, they’re all great people. They all did what they had to do. Some of them had to sacrifice the ultimate and they’re not here anymore, but those are treasured moments for me.


Veterans Day brings back good memories that you want to have and it’s great to be free.



These interviews were recorded by Lower Kuskokwim School District Media Ready Program Interns Kaitlyn Lincoln, Reann Lincoln, and Jared James.