Old Navy friends reunite after nearly 50 years Sonny Venes of Bethel makes a trip of a lifetime

Jeff Venes stands with his dad US Navy Veteran Sonny Venes last Thursday at their home in Bethel. photo by Greg Lincoln

by K.J. Lincoln

It’s been almost 50 years since Sonny Venes of Bethel has seen his two Navy buddies Wayne Bowman and Ray Green. They so happened to have the good fortune of working together at the air traffic control tower at the Navy Air Service (NAS) in Jacksonville, Florida from 1969-1971 and became the best of friends.

Back then they were only 22 and 23 years old and aviation and flying drew them together. Sonny hadn’t seen them for 49 years and 8 days until this past March.

They had a grand reunion back in Jacksonville where it all started before the corona virus shut everything down.

We met with Sonny and his youngest son Jeff to talk about the unforgettable experience of seeing old friends once again.

It was a trip of a lifetime, a long-awaited, much-anticipated reunion.

“After thirty years I looked them up and they were still alive,” said Sonny as he sat at their kitchen table which was covered with old photos of them including some from the tower where they worked.

Sonny Venes of Bethel was only 20 years old when he joined the Navy. It was 1967 and hundreds of young Alaskan men headed down to San Diego for bootcamp including Sonny. He later served as an air traffic controlman on the U.S.S. Bennington, an aircraft carrier.

In June of 1969 he was assigned to the NAS in Jacksonville where he first met Wayne Bowman who trained him to work in the tower. There he also met Ray Grass who also worked in the tower and had a penchant for flying.

Before that, Bowman had been stationed in Adak and Grass had been in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Bowman had also gone to the same air traffic control school in Glynco, Georgia that Sonny had went to, but at different times.

“We just met by coincidence,” said Sonny chuckling. “We happened to be at the same place at the same time and became quick friends – couple of the greatest guys you could ever meet.”

Together they would go flying. Sonny remembered all the planes they took out.

“We rented Stearmans, Super Cubs, Cherokee 6’s, Cessna 182s, Cessna 172s,” he said. “The funnest airplane to fly was the open cockpit Stearman.”

Grass liked to fly so much that Sonny had a nickname for him – Sky. And the first time Sonny wore a tuxedo? At Bowman’s wedding where he was honored to be a groomsman.

Accompanying Sonny on the reunion trip was his wife Irene and Jeff who was also able to make it.

“Just the timing on all this worked out so good,” said Jeff who is also a pilot, he flies for Ryan Air which gave him the opportunity to accompany his parents. “My mom loved this trip. They opened their arms to us, the hospitality was sweet.”

In Jacksonville, the group – including Wayne Bowman who drove 8 hours to join up with them – was able to visit the air traffic control tower where they worked decades ago. A friend of Grass who was a retired commander with base access brought them. They were given permission to go up, climbing the spiral staircase as they had done so many times before.

Irene and Jeff also went up, they weren’t going to miss out on visiting the tower where Sonny had worked.

In the tower they took photos and talked with those who were working there, the new generation of air traffic controllers.

“I couldn’t believe we were able to go all the way to the top as it wasn’t arranged before we visited. It was great talking with the current Navy airdales,” said Jeff. “The stories and the memories my dad and his friends shared were very special.”

Back at Ray’s place which is on the St. Johns River, the friends took a cruise on Ray’s yacht where they spent time catching up on what they’ve been doing for the past 50 years, reminiscing about old times and aviation.

The Grass’ also hosted a fish fry with trout and the whole neighborhood came to celebrate with them. Folks were curious about Alaska and asked millions of questions.

“That was one of the most amazing couple of days with those guys. Watching them and listening to their stories. I wish everyone could have been there to feel how special it was. I’m very lucky to have been there. I hope I’ll never forget it,” said Jeff.

It was a heartwarming, proud moment for Sonny to be able to see his old friends again. It meant the world to him.

“It was great to see these guys again, it was like old times sakes,” he said. “My highlight was to get to see my two old Navy buddies that I haven’t seen in 49 years. Yes, it was a trip of lifetime. It made my year, it made my decade, it made my life.”

For Sonny’s 73rd birthday, which was in April, Jeff created a video/slide show commemorating the reunion trip. He shared it on social media in honor of his dad.

The trio of friends is still in touch with each other. Sonny has plans to get them up to Alaska for a visit sometime soon.

The video of Sonny and Jeff talking about their historic trip is available for viewing at our website. Quyana!