SEQUIM — Tom McKeown Sr., a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of World War II, had a memorable early birthday present.
The 95-year-old Port Angeles man took a tethered balloon ride with Capt. Crystal Stout, executive director of Dream Catcher Balloon, at Sequim Valley Airport on Saturday.
Stout arranged the ride as an early birthday present for McKeown, who turns 96 on May 7.
After his short ride of up to about 25 feet above the ground, McKeown said the experience was something he had always dreamed of.
“It’s the last one on my bucket list,” he said.
Pvt. 1st Class McKeown fought at Guadalcanal and other battles in the Pacific theater. He was a highly-decorated Marine whose list of ribbons and medals include the Purple Heart.
McKeown said in a telephone interview that he was impressed by his Dream Catcher Balloon pilot.
“She directed those guys around like an old first sergeant,” McKeown said of Stout.
“I really liked her.”
Dream Catcher Balloon allows those with limited mobility, including veterans and seniors, easy assess to a balloon ride, according to its website, www.dream catcherballoon.org.
A special set-up allowed McKeown to be transferred safely into his seat in a five-point harness.
McKeown was dressed in a Marine Corp League uniform for the occasion, which was witnessed by about two dozen fellow Marines, family and friends, some of whom he had not seen in years.
“My old principal was there,” said McKeown, who taught for 22 years at Port Angeles High School and won a Teacher of the Year award in 1967.
Commanded by Maj. General Merritt Austin Edson, McKeown and his Raider Battalion landed on Tulagi, British Solomon Islands, on Aug. 7, 1942, with the 2nd Battalion and 5th Marines, according to a Dream Catcher Balloon news release.
Two days of severe fighting with the Japanese forces secured the island in the Battle of Tulagi, the release said.
McKeown’s battalion relocated to Guadalcanal on Sept. 13, 1942. The Raider Battalion conducted raids on Savo Island and at Tasimboko on Guadalcanal before it was attacked by Japanese forces.
About 800 Marines withstood the repeated assaults of more than 2,500 Japanese.
McKeown was wounded at Guadalcanal.
“There were so many casualties,” McKeown said in a news release.
“My picture is in every Marine Corp. publication. I was being carried out on a stretcher.”
McKeown’s list of ribbons and medals include the Purple Heart, Good Conduct, Combat Action, Presidential Unit Citation, Navy-Marine Corp Unit Commendation, American Defense with two stars, American Campaign WWII, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Victory Medal WWII, Ruptured Duck ribbon and Marine Corp League Marine of the Year in 1997, 2005 and 2009.
He received a Governor’s Award for Veterans in 2007 for his outstanding volunteer work on behalf of other veterans.
Last June, McKeown took a VIP flight in a B-17 Flying Fortress during the Wings of Freedom Tour stop in Port Angeles.