Thursday, May 15, 2014

From Paul Trusten, a Valor Tours participant:
Once before, I awarded a TripAdvisor "sixth green dot" to a business for exceeding the top rating allowed by the TripAdvisor rankings, and it's time to do it again, this time for Valor Tours/Bilikiki Cruises.

As a passenger aboard the MV Bilikiki for its 2014 tour Return To Guadalcanal, I knew I was making a personally historic journey, that of retracing some of my father's steps as a U.S. Army soldier during the Pacific Theater in World War II. But this tour, designed by Valor Tours and operated by Bilikiki Cruises, proved to be an existential adventure of the highest order, an intimate journey among South Pacific islands that time and a busy world forgot, a facing of rough seas and a challenging tropical climate, and an experience shared by 17 other passengers who would all become fast friends in the process.  Some of the passengers on this trip were previous customers of Valor Tours. 

The tour participants met in Honiara, Guadalcanal, capital of Solomon Islands,  after a flight together from Los Angeles, and there boarded the MV Bilikiki, a 10-cabin, 20 passenger boat, for a voyage across the Solomon chain to visit various venues of the Guadalcanal Campaign of 1942-43, first U.S. offensive of the war. We visited and hiked along roads and jungle paths, discovering the litter of war (old tanks, rusted gun turrets, vintage Coke bottles, forks from mess kits), and we walked on old airfields that were a part of the struggle. But that wasn't all. The ship's crew treated us like kings and queens, regaling us with sumptuous, on-board meals three times a day(often includiing freshly caught local fish such as kingfish,  expertly guiding us in and out of the "tinnies" (transfer boars) to visit each of the islands, and finally, educating us on the various phases of the battle with videos and with the expertise of the tour leader, Prof. Andy Giles of the University Of Maine. In addition, on-board diving experts and what I am told is one of the world's premier diving boats (the Bilikiki itself) added to the adventure for those passengers with diving and snorkeling experience. 

By its nature and in its per-person cost, this tour is not for everybody. But I think all of us who invested in it and finished it agreed that the experience was worth every turn, and the cost was worth every cent. It seems we all felt that it was worth the planning and the expense. I shall remember those days in the Solomons for the rest of my life,  and I believe I am one name on a long list of past Valor Tours happy customers."

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Below is a link to a sampling of some photos I took during our wonderful trip to the South Pacific. 
The photo show expires within 30 days, so I hope you have an opportunity to view.
...just some thoughts :)

If not for John, the event would not have meant so much;

        For Dale, Louise, Marcelo -  the whole darn bunch;

Glen, an author, a Fiji tour planner too;
        Climbing mountains, dense forest - DeDe and Tony – never too few!
Rafael, our own Hollywood, kept the shades;
        Even at Pagoda in the dark, dreary cave!
Bob was a fan of Puller, jungles and scotch;
  Jim, like Lombardi, never late, in sync by the watch;
Doug and Vic had patience on wooden pews;
  While Marine Frayne kept everyone in step with island views;
Ron and Ron were quiet and a superb photographer team;
  And most importantly I thank you all, friends, for sharing my lifetime dream! 
May God Bless Each and Every One of You and Wishes for Continued Beautiful Travel Experiences!  Love, Jane 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Trip of a Lifetime: WWII Aleutian Sites

By John Cloe

Ten of us, including six intrepid Alaskans, recently completed the first commercial tour of World War II military sites in the Aleutians, organized by Valor Tours of Sausalito, California. Our goal included determining the feasibility of safely visiting World War II historic sites in remote and difficult to reach places. Our trip was more of an expedition than your normal tour of well-groomed Civil War battlefields.

The tour commemorated the 70th anniversary of the ending of the Aleutian Campaign and included visits to the Attu and Kiska Historic Landmarks and the B-24D Liberator crash site on Atka Island listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Additionally, the Aleutian have the distinction of having three sites listed as World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monuments. Of a total of nine, including five in Hawaii and one in California, the Aleutian ones are the most difficult to visit. The three sites encompass the battlefield remnants on Attu, the Japanese occupation sites on Kiska, and the B-24 on Adak. Attu and Kiska are uninhabited and the B-24 site is at the far end on Atka Island with no road access from Atka Village on the east side.

We flew to Adak on June 20 on one of the twice-weekly Alaska Airlines passenger and cargo flights, arriving in rain, wind and cold.

On arrival, we toured the World War II and Cold War sites, where we viewed the slow deterioration of unused facilities. They included the Old Bering Hill Chapel, listed by The Alaska Association for Historic Preservation among the “Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties for 2013.”

We then boarded the custom designed 72-foot steel hulled M/V Puk-Uk, owned and operated by Billy Choate, Alaska Marine Expeditions, based in Homer, and headed out into an Aleutian storm, stopping in Gusty Bay, Tanaga, to wait for the storm to pass.

The group, however, decided to press on despite the heavy swells. We were rewarded by reaching Kiska Harbor in calm conditions. We spent time ashore visiting the former Japanese occupation sites including many of the guns, ranging from 6-inch naval guns to anti-aircraft machine guns, and three beached Japanese transports. The place is like a museum.

From there, we proceeded in calm weather to Attu, watching wildlife along the way and passing the secret Air Force base on Shemya. We went ashore on Attu at the former Aleut village in Chichagof Harbor, explored the West Arm in Holtz Bay, walked the length of the abandoned runway at the former Coast Guard base in Massacre Bay where we read the inscriptions on four memorial plaques, and hiked to the Peace Memorial installed by the Japanese on Engineer Hill.

We stopped along the way to visit and read the interpretive panels and memorial to Joe Martinez, the only man to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Aleutian Campaign. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife personnel had installed the panels and plaque early in June.

While we were on Engineer Hill eating our sack lunches, a twin-engine turboprop flew over. I don’t know who was more surprised in that remote area. On the way back to our pickup point in Navy Cove, we met a Japanese couple, a priest and a guide heading for Engineer Hill for a memorial service for the Japanese war dead on Attu. The battlefield apparently has more meaning to the Japanese. In addition to the Peace Memorial, the Japanese have placed four other smaller memorials in the area.

We left Attu with another storm approaching us from the southwest. While aboard the Puk-Uk, we watched DVDs, read, discussed the war in the Aleutians and what we had seen, spent time on the spacious bridge watching the incredible Aleutian scenery and wildlife, ate gourmet meals prepared by our cook, celebrated her birthday during a party organized by Ron Inouye, enjoyed wine and beer, and slept in comfortable bunks. If anyone was seasick from the violently pitching and rolling vessel, they kept their misery to themselves.

While en route to Dutch Harbor, our end-of-tour destination, we went ashore in Beechevin Bay, Atka, and hiked the short distance to the B-24 site where John Andrews and Louis Blau had made a wheels-up landing in the approaching darkness of December 1942. They were unable to land elsewhere due to weather. Sadly, we found many parts missing from this historic relic. They apparently had been taken by scavengers seeking parts for the restoration of other B-24s.

We arrived at Dutch Harbor on a beautiful morning July 2. Our group toured the former Navy base and nearby Unalaska, spent the night at the Grand Aleutian Hotel, and departed on July 3 on a Pen Air flight back to Anchorage.

There were a number of lessons learned from the trip: the need to be physically fit, the requirement that only small, well-led groups can safely visit many of the sites, and the ability to adapt to a remote environment and respect its conditions.

Currently, the next trip is planned for June 2014. Six people have put down deposits for the trip and another fifteen have expressed interest. The tour has not been advertised. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in a seldom-visited, remote area of our planet.

One more photo: Aleutian WWII Historic Sites

As a follow-up to John Cloe's recent post about the trip to WWII sites in the Aleutians, here's another photo, this one from Ron Inouye.
The war memorial on Engineer Hill. Photo: Ron Inouye

According to Ron: “Only by boat does one appreciate the Aleutians' vast distances, variable weather, and strong currents. Sea and land birds, porpoises, whales, foxes, caribou mysteriously appear. And patience is learned, snuggled in a bay as the bad weather plays out, hour by hour, day by day. And tons of war relics rust and repose in the enveloping bays or the grasps of the lush, green landscapes."

Saturday, May 12, 2012

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Monday, February 28, 2011

Seabee Memorial on Tinian

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Seabee Memorial on Tinian
I have been working on various documentary projects which have required me to explore most of the WWII areas on Tinian over the last 20 years. Each year I bring Valor Tours groups to Saipan and Tinian to visit the World War II sites which the historic preservaton office clears of jungle growth. Unfortuantely, Tinian's economy cannot afford to support the constant clearing work needed to keep all the sites clean. The jungle works relentlessly to cover the vast B-29 runways. However, the WWII roads still make it easy to move around the island. At present, Tinian's economy is suffereing the severe effects of the downturn of the worldwide recession.

During the 60th Commemoration event in August 2005, a tremendous effort was made to clear off many notable WWII sites. These included the ENOLA GAY's hardstand, areas where work was done on assembling atomic bombs, the Army hopsital on Mt. Lasso, the asphalt plant off 8th Avenue, the 509th and the 504th Bomb Group camps, numerous Japanese bunkers, and much more. Unfortunately, many of these sites are now overgrown again and almost impossible to get to. You can see all the cleaned off sites and hear the Veterans' comments and stories as they revisit these WWII sites on Tinian in my new documentary film called ECHOES FROM THE APOCALYPSE. Also available is the award winning two-hour documentary THUNDER FROM TINIAN released in 1997 which is an in depth study of every facet of Tinian's WWII story. Ordering inquiries may be made by email to

In 2009, Historic Preservation Director Carmen Sanchez and I went into the section of the former 107th Seabees camp. Today it is heavily overgrown with tangan tangan jungle. We discovered an interesting ruin, which was apparently a former enlisted men's or officer's club which had the unique feature of using coke bottles in its construction. The bar was made of brick and coke bottles which the patio was paved with nose-down coke bottles. We cleaned the site off and photographed it for documentation. The 107th Seabees monument off 8th Avenue is in fine shape and is still a site visited by most tourists whio come to Tinian.

As for Tinian's future, there are plans by the U.S. Military to turn the north two thirds of the island into a live fire military facility which would service the 6,000 marines being moved from Okinawa to Guam by 2012.

In the hundreds of interviews I have done with WWII Pacific Veterans, all agree that the Seabees were universally appreciated and greatly respected.

Professor Anderson Giles, University of Maine at Presque Isle
Posted by Valor Tours Ltd. at 1:42 PM

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Visting Gallopoli

In September I led my first tour of the Gallipoli Battlefields. It was with a small group, but it turned out to be a wonderful success. My parent company Valor Tours of California found an outstanding local company, named Flo-Turkey, to handle our local arrangement. Valor Tours wants to run the same program next September, but needs eight passengers to make it viable. Email me if you are interested in more information about our 2010 Gallipoli Tour (email)

Your Editor at the entrance to the Dardanelles, 27 September 2009. I'm Standing on the Asian Side, not far from the ruins of Troy. Is the distance is Cape Helles.

Full-sized replica of the most celebrated ship in Turkish history, The minelayer Nusret, at the Naval Museum, Çanakkale. This ship laid the string of mines that sank three battleships on March 18, 1915. The Turkish perspective is that the defeat of the Allied naval assault doomed the entire invasion, and the subsequent land campaign never had a chance of succeeding.

Two of the tour members, David and Mike, at the Naval Museum, which is located at the Dardanelles "Narrows". These are the types of mines that sank the battleships. The ships went down immediately behind the guys.

V Beach: the best known of the five landing sites at Cape Helles on April 25, 1915 viewed from a Turkish defensive post. The exit floats of the ill-fated SS River Clyde and the few men who made it ashore were subject to withering enfilade fire from this position all day long.

W Beach: Our Boat is is just behind the remains of one of the piers built to supply the troops at Helles after the initial landing. This site is also known as "Lancashire Landing" in honor of the six VCs awarded for service "before breakfast" by members of the Lancashire Fusiliers.

At Anzac we met a group of students and their teachers from Sydney. They had also visited the Western Front. The signs are quite evocative. Plugge's Plateau (behind the group) was the site of one of the first struggles of the campaign and Shrapnel Valley would be the essential communications and rogistical route for the Anzac Front.

On the high ridge between Lone Pine and the high peaks of Sari Bair the front line at Anzac stabilized, and things around there Have a "Western Front" Look. This is an Australian Trench and Tunnel Entrance before Johnston's Jolly.

View from Walker's Ridge. This was close to the left glank of the Anzacs in the early campaign. Below can be seen Anzac Cove, and behind the photographer is the Nek, locale of the battle depicted in the film Gallipoli.

This yellow house in the village of Bigali was Mustafa Kemal's headquarters during the Gallipoli campaign. There are numerous monuments and informational fisplays (like the insert) across the Gallipoli Peninsula and at Çanakkale extolling his contributions.

Two group shots: off of North Beach-Anzac (L) and at the Turkish Memorial, Cape Helles (R). On the Anzac photo, the "Sphinx" is conspicuous: Our excellent guide Koray Çirik is on the left and Flo-Turkey public relations Rep and executive trainee Sibel Gezer is the Lady in Pink. Sibel was a hit with the troops. David, Fred, Myself and Mike are at the memorial on the right side image.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Field Report: The 65th Anniversary of D-Day by Mike Hanlon

In early June I was the leader of group that visited the Normandy invasion sites and got to attend the 65th Anniversary Commemoration at the U.S. Cemetery above Omaha Beach. My regular World War I company, Valor Tours Ltd., had asked me to accompany and lend a hand to their founder, RAF veteran Bob Reynolds on this trip. Bob flew on a mission over the Cotentin Peninsula the night of June 5/6, 1944 dropping chaff to cover the U.S. parachute drops for the invasion making him an authentic D-Day veteran. Since Bob has led this tour for 40 consecutive years my "leadership" of the tour mainly consisted of checking the group into our outstanding hotel, the La Sapiniere, (situated right on Omaha Beach near one of the key breakout points of June 6th) plus saying "good morning" to the group each morning on the bus before handing the microphone over to Bob. This was a blessing for the group because Bob proved to be a great raconteur, knowledgeable historian, and an authentic participant in the actual history being recounted. It was a blessing for me as well because I got to focus more than usual on the sites and events themselves. Here are some of my memories and observations of what was a hectic, but exciting, week in Normandy.

Changes and New Appreciations: It has been 12 years since my previous visit to Normandy and I had lost the feel for just how huge a battlefield it was -- 50 miles from the British sites around Pegasus Bridge on east flank of the beaches to the American drop zone behind Utah Beach in the west. There has been a proliferation of museums, visitors centers, and monuments since my last visit. There is also greater commercialization around the more famous sites, but the only thing that struck our group as unseemly was a nonhistorical festival of some sort featuring loud blaring post-rock music at Utah Beach when we visited there.

The British and Canadian Contributions: I'm afraid my previous visits heavily concentrated on the American sites to the west, but that deficiency was cured this time. (A little detail for the readers: more British and Canadian troops came ashore on D-Day than Americans.) With Bob's RAF flying experience, at Pegasus Bridge he was able to give a very detailed description of the operation that captured the absolutely superb execution of the glider landing and capture of the bridge. Simply an awesome bit of flying and fighting. Besides visiting the British and Canadian beaches, we also made a long stop at Arromanches where remains of the Mulberry artificial harbor can be viewed. There is also an excellent museum dedicated to the harbor right on the beach. In my other lifetime I've been a project manager and planner for new medical centers, large planned communities, and even a nuclear reactor. The Mulberry artificial harbor, however, is simply beyond anything in my experience. Its concept and execution were so grand they can't be appreciated from up-close on the shore, but only from the bluffs high above Arromanches. Imagine the Pharaohs building all the pyramids at Ghiza at the same time--that's the scale of Mulberry. The Visitors Center at the U.S. Cemetery: We spent an afternoon at the $37 million Visitors Center at the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. This was the tour's highlight for me. It is simply the finest tribute to America's military heritage I've seen, and I've been to Gettysburg, Arlington, Valley Forge, and almost all of our great memorials and museums. The American Battle Monuments Commission that oversaw its design and construction deserve the highest praise. Considering that it honors one of the greatest victories in our history, it is totally lacking in triumphalism. The center features clever technology and displays, but they are not intrusive and they are beautifully done and give a tremendous amount of information. Visitors learn about the Normandy campaign, its origins and execution, the units that served, and best of all--I can't say this too strongly--leave feeling personally acquainted with a large number of the soldiers who fought for us there. All visitors upon departing are guided blind to a small enclosure where a last statement is made. On a patch of ground is planted an M-1 rifle with the bayonet punching into the ground. Atop is a GI helmet - field grave for an American soldier. Many on our tour reported tears flowing at this point. (Yes, me too.) In the Normandy campaign, as we reported last month, the United States lost more killed in action (29,000) than in any other battle in our history.

U.S. Military Cult: An amusing discovery was made the day we drove from Paris to the invasion beaches. We started spotting dozens (and later hundreds) of U.S. WWII vehicles on the roads--from jeeps to tank transporters to 6 x 6 trucks--manned by reenactors wearing GI uniforms and gear. It seems that the D-Day anniversary marks an annual meeting and encampment of collectors of U.S. militaria and equipment from all over Europe. It was simply hilarious meeting people from Poland, Greece, and Belgium, who are so "into" things American. A good number of them converged on Sainte-Mere-Eglise the day we visited, but we met with them everywhere we went. My favorites were the "U.S. Navy Shore Patrol," who drove a grey Navy jeep and dressed up like the sailors in South Pacific, wearing white caps, dungarees, "SP" armbands and web belts with billy clubs hanging. Meeting Readers: I was happy to meet some Trip-Wire readers at Normandy. One evening our hotel manager sent a German gentleman over to my table who was looking for a Mr. Reynolds. It turned out not to be my colleague from Valor Tours he was seeking, but I asked the fellow to join me for a glass of Calvados and he accepted. He said his name was Martin Galle and I responded, "Mike Hanlon," as we shook hands. Martin totally caught me by surprise when he asked, "not the Mike Hanlon?" I was embarrassed as could be, but as it turns out, I am "the Mike Hanlon" Martin had in mind. He has been a longtime reader of this newsletter. But then, more interesting, I got treated to the story why Martin was making his own pilgrimage to Normandy. His grandfather, on his mother's side, commanded the German infantry regiment that was defending Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Martin said this was an interesting coincidence because his grandfather was also in the front line of the St. Mihiel Salient when the U.S. Army deployed there in 1918. I have asked Martin to write an article on his grandfather's experiences in both wars and hope to present it in a future issue. Jeffrey Aarnio, Superintendent of the U.S. Oise/Aisne Cemetery and his wife Michelle also said hello at the cemetery ceremony. His own cemetery has been designated in a group of five overseas cemeteries to receive enhanced educational resources for visitors modeled (on a smaller scale) on the Omaha Beach center. His is the only WWI cemetery on the list, so we will be monitoring that project closely. Jeffrey will be attending the Seminar at Kansas City is September, so you will be able to meet him if you are attending. Last, friends Toni and Valmai Holt, founders of Holts Tours and now publishing magnates, dropped by our hotel to visit with Bob Reynolds and myself. This was the second year in a row we were able to visit and we had a pleasant, albeit too brief, time comparing notes. They are redoing their D-Day guidebook and we will post a link to their site when it is ready. I used their current edition to brush up for this trip and it proved invaluable.

Fireworks: The French do fireworks outstandingly well. At 11 p.m. the night before the anniversary there was stupendous display along the 50-mile invasion beach front. From, maybe, six to eight points simultaneous launches were made of spectacular and identical bursts. The effect was stunning and I'll remember it all my days.

D-Day + 65 Years - the Morning: Everyone at our hotel had the same idea -- rise early the morning of D-Day and walk down to Omaha Beach. My room happened to be on the second floor of the hotel and my front door opened to a near-perfect view of the beach. When I opened it that morning, I gasped at the scene I beheld. Overnight a flottila of Allied warships (mostly French apparently) had arrived and were anchored just offshore. I had a bit of the view of a German defender at the same position on that morning 65 years ago. It was another priceless moment for me. Unfortunately, for security reasons, the gendarmes closed off the beach that morning. By the way, they now wear baseball caps instead of kepis. (I wonder when that happened?) D-Day + 65 Years - the Big Event: The rest of June 6th, of course, was fully focused at the commemorative event featuring the world leaders at the Omaha Beach cemetery, which had a limited, by invitation only, audience of 7,000. For me personally, this was the first time I felt I was at "The Most Happening Place" in the whole world. I won't bore the readers with details about security. It was all understandably necessary, but that doesn't necessarily mean it was fun to experience it firsthand. The U.S. military was an important yet unobtrusive presence. Besides helping with the security, they served a number of other functions like escorting veterans and firing the artillery pieces in the 21-gun salute. The young troops who came by to chat inspired a lot of pride amongst our group. Bob Reynolds became a hero to the group as he somehow wangled a seat on the main stage just four rows behind the first lady. (He seems to know everyone at Normandy.) President Obama hit the right tone in his speech as did President Sarkozy. (Of course, I didn't confirm this until I read a translation a few days later, but the large French-speaking contingent responded pretty positively during the talk.) The British and Canadian Prime Ministers, however, didn't do as well. Mr. Brown sounded a bit strident and seemed to be far more political (commenting more on a laundry list of current issues rather than remembering D-Day) than his colleagues, and Mr. Harper spoke alternately in English and French, making it difficult to follow the logic of his talk. Taken a whole, the ceremony was inspiring, though, and at times thrilling, like when the four national anthems were sung with gusto by the chorus.

Corridor of Death Museum: There was a final surprise for me on our return drive to Paris. At Montormel, near Falaise where the famous gap didn't quite get closed, there is a great museum that shows what happened in those critical hours of the Normandy campaign when escaping German units were almost annihilated. The museum designers cleverly set you up. You are first treated to an excellent but conventional audiovisual presentation of the fight in an enclosed, standup theatre. But then doors open, and you instantaneously step on to a platform where you view, several hundred feet below you in a valley, the "Corridor of Death" itself. A+ for its dramatic presentation of military history.

Visit Mike Hanlon's blog at