Sitka prankster among seven World War II veterans honored

Posted: Tuesday, May 28, 2002

SITKA (AP) -- Celebrated Sitka prankster Oliver ''Porky'' Bickar, who once ignited an April Fool's Day ''eruption'' in the cone of Sitka's dormant volcano, has a serious side.

That side was highlighted in a Memorial Day ceremony in Anchorage Monday when Sen. Ted Stevens awarded Bickar and six other Alaska veterans the Normandy Medal of the Jubilee of Liberty.

The French medal honors American soldiers who took part in the D-Day invasion that began June 6, 1944, starting the Allied march to Berlin and ultimate victory in World War II.

Bickar, 19 at the time and a Technician 4th Grade in the Army 2009th Ordnance Maintenance Company, hit the beach at Normandy when the invasion -- called Operation Overlord -- began.

''I don't remember hardly a bit of it,'' he said. ''Everything is blank to me. I remember the confusion.

''We were loading trucks onto boats. After we got on there, we were sitting and waiting on the boats and we got seasick, so seasick we wanted to die,'' he said. ''And we were scared -- you've never been so scared -- wondering what the hell we were doing there. After I got on land, I didn't get that scared again. After I got down on my own two feet, I was back to my senses.

''It was hell. It was hell all the time we were there.''

Six months earlier, Bickar was working in a machine shop in Washington when two of his co-workers decided to quit and join the army. He went with them.

Born in Brooklyn, Wash., Bickar moved to Sitka as a logger in early 1960 and for many years has run an industrial equipment shop. He also is a self-taught artist.

But the 79-year-old Sitkan is better known for his practical jokes. On April Fool's Day, 1974, after three-years of planning, he hired a helicopter to drop 100 car tires into the cone of Mt. Edgecumbe, the dormant volcano near Sitka. He doused the tires in gasoline and ignited them, creating a plume of black smoke from the volcano's cone.

The story of the ''eruption'' was picked up by news wires around the world, he said.

Bickar was in the local news more recently when his life-sized metal sculptures of moose, deer and bears appeared overnight in several public locations around town. Some people were not pleased, but others wrote letters to the editor in support of Bickar's guerrilla art and the city Parks and Recreation Department worked with him to install the sculptures in a city-approved location at Swan Lake.

As he readied himself Thursday for his trip to Anchorage, Bickar said he was pleased to be honored for his service six decades ago. He also was looking forward to seeing Stevens, ''an old friend.''

''He used to call me up when he was in Sitka and we'd go play pool at the Elks,'' Bickar said. ''He wasn't very good.''

Stevens himself was a World War II Army Air Corps pilot who served in the Pacific theater. He was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Air Medals, along with the Yuan Hai Medal awarded by the Republic of China.

In Europe, the three-month-long Normandy campaign was the turning point in the outcome of World War II. The liberation of France blocked German access to the raw materials and industrial materials of Western Europe.

The French government minted the Normandy Medal of the Jubilee of Liberty to mark the 50th anniversary of the invasion in 1994 to honor American soldiers who participated.

''Other states have awarded the medal in the past,'' said Stevens' spokesman Wayne Maloney. ''Sen. Stevens was aware of the medal and knew that many of Alaska's veterans were unable to go to France in 1994 to receive the medal.''

Stevens' office sent letters to the Disabled American Veterans, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion Posts around the state seeking Normandy veterans entitled to receive the medal. Bickar was among the seven who qualified.

The other recipients are Donald Cook, 82, of Fairbanks; Ernest Glanz, 86, of Anchorage; Daniel Furlong, 79, of Kenai; John Hastie of Anchorage; Clayton Helgeson, 78, of Soldotna and Lenard Reel, 79, of Homer.

The awards ceremony was held at American Legion Post 1.

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