PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — Although he’s traveled to Hawaii on a number of occasions, this Carson City veteran visited Honolulu earlier in February to specifically see the memorials, ask questions and pose in group photos with others who had served during World War II and the Korean War.
During a five-day Honor Flight Nevada trip to Oahu — and specifically to Pearl Harbor — Richard “Dick” Whiston absorbed the camaraderie among the veterans and learned more about the events that led to the beginning of World War II. He toured the decks of the USS Missouri, the mighty battleship where Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Japanese envoys signed the formal surrender almost 75 years ago. He stood in front of an Iwo Jima memorial at Marine Corps Base Hawaii that marks one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific. More than 7,000 Marines died in six weeks of intense fighting. He stood quietly looking at the names inscribed in marble at the USS Arizona memorial where 1,177 sailors died as a result of a surprise Japanese attack on Oahu on Dec. 7, 1941.
Whiston, an Army veteran who served as a captain in South Korea in the 1960s, believes in veterans’ causes, notably the mission of Honor Flight Nevada, which takes veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the nation’s memorials built in their honor; yet this first trip of 2020 was different. Instead of heading to the east coast, veterans flew to Hawaii, a first for the Nevada program. During the past five years, Whiston has sponsored numerous trips for Nevada’s veterans including the whirlwind tour to Hawaii, but on the trip’s third day, the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, the Honor Flight Nevada board of directors and his fellow travelers thanked him for his contributions to the veterans’ community.
“It’s the man standing behind me who started this all,” Whiston said during a short presentation before the group ate lunch. “He’s the one who persuaded me this was a good thing to do.”
Whiston was referring to John “Big John” Konvica, a fellow Carson City resident, who told Whiston about the local Honor Flight program, and if he wanted to assist financially.
“I made him take me on a trip to see if the people who went on the trip enjoyed it, and it was a worthwhile thing,” Whiston recalled.
Whiston, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, served as executive vice president and general counsel for Pratt & Whitney, United Technologies Co., and president of the firm’s Space and Russian Operations for 17 months.
He said everyone on the flight had a good time, and he was hooked. He presented Honor Flight Nevada with another check to sponsor the next flight. Whiston has sponsored a number of flights to the nation’s capital including the first one for Vietnam vets and most recently the last journey to Honolulu. It costs $1,000 to sponsor each veteran on an Honor Flight.
Jon Yuspa, Honor Flight Nevada’s founder and executive director, said Whiston doesn’t have a wife or children. His family is fellow veterans.
“When he first got involved, he escalated the need for the Vietnam veterans to go,” Yuspa said.
At first, he said Whiston remained low key and didn’t want others to know of his philanthropy. While in Washington, Whiston and Carson City Mayor Bob Crowell laid two of four wreaths at the Vietnam Wall. Yuspa said it unfolded as an emotional occasion for everyone at the memorial.
When the veterans returned to Reno, Whiston and the other travelers received specially made quilts from the Comstock Quilters. Yuspa said Whiston was so moved he donated money to them.
The talk about a mission to Pearl Harbor for veterans began to originate several years ago. While Washington offers memorials, Yuspa said Oahu symbolizes ground zero for World War II.
“That’s where people laid down their lives and where blood was spilled,” Yuspa said.
Whiston became interested in the Honor Flight to Hawaii and with the planning, he thought it was a good idea.
“If you do the Pearl Harbor trip, I’ll pay for it,” he said during the ceremony at the aviation museum.
Tom Spencer, president of the Carson City chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America 388, recommended Whiston for the state’s Veteran of the Month award, which he received in December 2018. On the second Honor Flight Nevada trip to Washington, Spencer sat next to Whiston. In addition to sponsoring veterans, Spencer said Whiston has bought new vans for the Disabled American Veterans veteran transit program.
“He had worked as a volunteer driver in our transportation program,” said Lisa Howard, director of the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System. “He saw the need to get the veterans in for their appointments.”
Within several years, Howard said Whiston became the single, largest private donor to the DAV, which in turn, purchased the vehicles. Frank Greenwood, who accompanied Whiston on the Honor Flight mission to Hawaii, said the vans pick up veterans and bring them to their appointments and also provide curbside service if they don’t have transportation. What began with the purchase of one van turned into many for Northern and Southern Nevada. The vans transport veterans from the rural areas, such as Fallon, Hawthorne and Winnemucca, to Reno.
Greenwood, who oversees the volunteer services for the statewide DAV, said Whiston has been angel for veterans and is involved with the DAV chapter in Reno and the Veterans of Foreign Wars in addition to VVA 338.
“He’s quiet until you get to know him,” Spencer said. “He’s a very reserved guy who takes care of veterans … and he’s very generous with Honor Flight.”
Yuspa thought it was fitting for Whiston to receive the Veteran of the Month award from then-Gov. Brian Sandoval. The governor who vowed to make Nevada the greatest state for veterans was weeks away from leaving office after serving two terms. Sandoval noted the ceremony attracted more than 150 people, the largest attended event since the Veteran of the Month program began in 2011.
At the ceremony, Sandoval thanked Whiston for his volunteering and for purchasing the vans for the DAV.
“You gave them the opportunity to do so,” Sandoval said. “I am so humbled, honored and privileged to be part of this event and what you have done for so many people.”
Whiston, though, said awards don’t motivate him, veterans do.
Kat Miller, director of the Nevada Department of Veterans Services, said with Whiston’s generosity, veterans have received transportation to their medical appointments. Her description of Whiston more than one year ago still resonates today for those who know him and those who met him for the first time in Hawaii:
“He personally rolls up his sleeves and gets involved,” she said.