Refugee goes on Sentimental Journey

Penticton man vividly remembers fleeing war zone and the clutches of Red Army and flies full circle when B-17 bomber visits Penticton.

Harry and wife JoAnn Kapeikis look over his first book about the war memories he has of fleeing from his homeland. The retired pastor recently had a chance to fly in a B-17 bomber

Harry and wife JoAnn Kapeikis look over his first book about the war memories he has of fleeing from his homeland. The retired pastor recently had a chance to fly in a B-17 bomber

In life it’s often said what goes around comes around and for retired Penticton pastor Harry Kapeikis it took over a half century, but the wait was worth it.

As a child living in a war zone he vividly remembers fleeing with his family from his Latvian homeland and the clutches of the encroaching Red Army.

Ironically, it was not the Russians but the freedom fighters who often posed the greatest risk.

Kapeikis recalls the terror he associated with the droning sound of the B-17 bombers high overhead.

“Our paths often lead through cities that were the targets of the B-17’s,” he said. “Hundreds of them flying at me, over me, they were the embodiment of trepidation. We homeless refugees were not the enemy, but from their high altitude we were undistinguishable from the enemy.”

Kapeikis recently got a different perspective of the B-17.

He flew on the Commemorative Air Force bomber Sentimental Journey while it was at Penticton Regional Airport.

“Riding in it for me was kind of like a full circle experience in life, you know these machines had their jobs to do and their orders and I was in the way and they didn’t notice I existed,” said Kapeikis, 80. “These guys flying the airplane (Sentimental Journey) weren’t there and to have somebody like myself who has seen it in action and now gets to experience just a little bit of what it was like was interesting. I’ve gone from being an insignificant target accessory to the fact, to all of a sudden being right there.

“Hanging onto the machine gun for balance was reminiscent in a way except before I was seeing them from below.”

Organized by the Penticton Flying Club, the visit was the second time the Arizona-based CAF had brought bombers to the city.

Part of the tour is to keep alive the memories of those who risked and gave their lives for freedom.

“For me it was a significant closure of a war fought to defend democracy,” said Kapeikis.

In 1944 he was nine years old and on the run with his family. Fortunately none of the B-17 bombs came close, but there were other dangerous incidents.

One in particular stands out, when they were at a railroad station where a train loaded with ammunition was stopped.

“We got out of there and we hadn’t gone two blocks when the sirens signalled air raid. Luckily there was a shelter nearby and we got into it. We hadn’t even closed the door when the bombs hit the station,” he recalled. “It’s hard to believe how you can live life like that. At that time there was a lot of us refugees, a lot of hungry people who lived day by day thinking, well thank the Lord I’m alive this morning will I be alive tomorrow? Who knows?

“As a child you grow up very fast.”

Eventually the family were taken into custody by American forces and spent nearly four years in a displaced persons camp in Germany, which actually seemed like luxury.

“We had shelter over our heads, our clothing was replaced and we were well taken care of, but we knew this was a temporary situation because in 1950 the camps were to be closed so we had to get out of there,” said Kapeikis. “We just didn’t know what was going to happen to us.”

Luckily a machinist’s job opened up for his father in Tacoma, Wa. and they were soon on their way by boat across the Atlantic Ocean, arriving at New York City in March 1949. Standing on the deck of the ship that night, looking up at the Statue of Liberty basking in the glow of huge spotlights he heard the U.S. national anthem and realized his journey from “survival to opportunity” was over.

Exile from Latvia was his first of three books, telling of his struggles during those years and also providing some needed personal therapy.

“I have not been back to my homeland. Once I left Europe, Europe was gone. The experiences we had, I simply sort of buried them, did not deal with them so I did not want to go back,” he said. “Then I wrote a book and after publishing and reliving it, I was ready to go but at that point my health gave way.”

He feels many people don’t appreciate the freedoms they enjoy although that changes with age and knowing about the past.

“That’s why I wrote the books, so I could leave behind my experiences,  that we can’t take democracy for granted because it can melt away, like the snow melts in spring and you might never get it back,” he said.