Flying a hero: When “Gramps” needed one final ride, his family reached out to this Alaska Airlines pilot 

Photos by Ingrid Barrentine

Alaska Airlines flies one of the last Pearl Harbor survivors to his final resting place

Richard Clyde Higgins, a chief petty officer in the Navy, was in his bunk at Pearl Harbor in the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 1941, when the first bombs fell. Jumping to grab his pants and looking outside he saw a crater about 7-feet deep that had once been a parked aircraft. He and his buddies worked to move airplanes away from the others that were on fire as the waves of bombing continued.  

 It was to be a day our country would never forget.  

An everyday hero 

Higgins was one of the lucky ones. He often said he wasn’t a hero; the heroes were those who never came home. He went on to have a family, become a grandfather and even a great-grandfather. He was “Gramps,” known for telling a good story and a smile that would light up a room. He even had his own Instagram account “quarantine chats with gramps,” where he told stories about his time in the service and earned a loyal following. 

Higgins passed away on March 19, at the age of 102. He was one of the few surviving service members from the Pearl Harbor attack. Newspapers from New York City to Bend, Oregon where he lived, told his story.  

But what they didn’t share was how Higgins and his family, in his final days, had reached out to an unlikely friend for a favor. The friend was Alaska Airlines Captain Adrienne Grechman. And the favor—Could Gramps hitch a final ride home? 

A chance meeting 

Grechman had met Higgins three years ago, rather serendipitously on a flight from Honolulu. As captain of the flight, she was at the door greeting guests when Higgins, then 100, came onboard. Noting his weathered garrison cap perched proudly on his head and the ready smile, she inquired about his trip. Yep, he was a Pearl Harbor Survivor headed home after being an honored guest at the 80th Anniversary Memorial.  

Capt. Grechman and Naval Chief Petty Officer Higgins in 2021 flying home after being an honored guest at the Pearl Harbor 80th anniversary commemorative ceremony. 

Grechman, whose father served and whose husband (also an Alaska pilot) is a former Navy F-18 pilot, was overcome with emotion. She couldn’t let Higgins’ flight pass without some celebration, so she rallied Alaska Airlines employees in Los Angeles to see that Higgins arrival at LAX was fit for a hero. 

A friendship was born and Grechman kept in touch with Higgins and his family over the years. So, when she got the call to fly him to his final resting place, she didn’t hesitate.  

It’s part of who we are at Alaska Airlines to honor service members like Mr. Higgins,” Grechman said. “On that morning at Pearl Harbor, he was just a 20-year old boy.  He became a man who spent his life reminding us of what it truly means to serve. Today, is truly the honor of a lifetime for me.” 

Despite the sunny day in Portland, the atmosphere was solemn  

Grechman arrived at Portland airport early Saturday morning, accompanying Higgin’s family. After her flight check onboard, she joined the family on the tarmac, alongside Alaska’s special Honoring Those Who Serve aircraft. 

First responders from the Port of Portland Police, Fire and Air National Guard teams lined the tarmac, their emergency vehicle lights flashing in reverence as members of our esteemed Fallen Soldier team began a solemn ceremony. Clad in safety vests, the all-volunteer group, delivered Higgins’ casket to the waiting aircraft via a special cart draped in an American flag and burnished with insignias from five branches of the armed services.  

As the flag-draped casket moved slowly up the belt, there was a moment of silence in Higgins’ honor.  

There was not a dry eye on the runway.  

Honoring those who serve 

Upon the flight’s arrival at Los Angeles, the aircraft was greeted by a water cannon salute from airport firetrucks. Higgins’ casket was carried off the aircraft to a coach parked next to an identical flag-draped cart. Designed and crafted by Alaska maintenance and engineering employees as part of its Fallen Soldier Program, the cart and the solemn ceremony, have set an industry standard for honoring deceased military members. 

Dan Brosch, an Alaska aircraft maintenance technician, who has hosted dozens of such flights of fallen soldiers said that you never get used to it. The emotion is raw every time. 

  “There is no greater thing you can do for a fellow human and their loved ones than provide compassion, honor and dignity at the time of their death,” Brosch said.   

Brosch presented special honor coins to Higgins family members, including four great-grandchildren gathered planeside—a small remembrance from Alaska’s Fallen Soldier team.  

From there, the family traveled to a graveside service where Higgins was laid to rest next to his  wife of 60 years, who had passed before him.  

Higgins’ daughter Vicki, who was in awe of the day, said her dad, who was very humble, would have wondered why we made such a fuss. “But, he would have loved it,” she said. 

Fair winds and following seas Chief Petty Officer Higgins. 


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  1. Beautiful story for a hero!

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