Last month, a retired Air Force mechanic from Parkland was the talk of the Mediterranean island nation of Malta.
Herb Tollefson got on the front page of the country’s national newspaper, The Times of Malta. A local writer who promotes Malta vacations produced a story on him, too.
“They treated us like royalty,” Tollefson said.
He savored every minute. At 95, Tollefson might not have many more opportunities to see the island where he served during World War II as an Air Force mechanic repairing damaged American bombers.
“I’m hard of hearing, I can’t see well, can’t walk well. Other than that, I’m fine,” he jokes.
The journey checked off an almost lifelong wish for the former staff sergeant and McChord Air Field maintenance crew chief. His memories of the place are so fond he insists even the powdered eggs the Air Force gave him for rations tasted delicious when a Maltese cook served them.
“Everybody hates powdered eggs,” he said. “They were the best omelets I ever had.”
His kids decided to make the trip happen for him last year. Their mom, Eve, died in 2010. It was time to do something nice for dad.
“For years, my dad talked about Malta, and we were like Malta, Schmalta,” said daughter Jeana Crawford of Bellevue.
But when they got him there, she understood what the place meant to him.
“I have never seen my dad happier,” she said.
Tollefson grew up in Marysville and joined the Air Force after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He wanted to learn how to fix planes and then become a pilot himself.
He served on Malta with a 14-mechanic detachment from the 26th Air Depot Group. It was a safe haven for allies behind enemy lines at that point in the war, although German bombers often hit it.
American bombers from Egypt would strike Italian and German positions. Sometimes, they landed on Malta on their return legs because they were too damaged to reach their home base. That’s where Tollefson and his teammates came in, working to save expensive planes.
“My dad could fix anything,” said his son, Steve Tollefson.
The detachment’s most memorable assignment took place when a B-24 bomber crashed in a melon patch on the nearby island of Sicily. Tollefson was one of the mechanics sent to get it flying again.
They spent a month working on the plane, clearing a runway and filling it with 500 gallons of fuel using only 5-gallon cans. Tollefson and his team called that plane their “melon patch special.” He caught malaria while working on it.
At take-off, pilot Warner Newby just barely cleared the runway. Over time, Newby rose to the rank of major general. He and Tollefson were close until Newby died Dec. 31, 2011.
On his recent trip to Malta, Tollefson went looking for other friends he made during the war. He told the local writers he particularly wanted a Maltese police officer named John Mifsud Sr., who used to take the American mechanics around Malta on slow days.
He had no luck seeing a familiar face during the weeklong trip, but the attention the family journey gathered helped them connect with Mifsud’s descendants, including John Mifsud Jr.
They both cried when they reached each other by phone. Mifsud Jr. later spent Christmas with the Tollefsons in Tacoma.
“When I met Herb, it was as if I’d known him all my life because he knew my father,” said Mifsud Jr., a resident of Oakland, Calif., who wrote a book about his father’s heroism in World War II called “All Clear: From Resisting Nazi Aggression to Life in the New World.”
Mifsud Jr. learned that their families were connected years after the war. He remembered an old family story about a package from America arriving to his parents’ home in Malta. It included treats such as popcorn. The family did not know how to cook it, and popcorn exploded all over the kitchen.
It turns out the Tollefsons sent that package.
“I felt like Herb was a long lost friend of mine even though the connection was with my father, and I was very grateful,” Mifsud Jr. said.
After the war, Tollefson worked for than 25 years as a civilian mechanic crew chief at McChord Air Field. He’s been involved with the McChord Air Museum since the 1980s and used to travel to track down parts for planes he wanted to restore.
Now he’s looking at giving a piece of his past to the military museum on Malta. He still has his green Air Force uniform. Come June, he plans to return to Malta to give it to history.
“When I’m gone, it’s not going to come with me,” he said.
Three of his children, a son-in-law and a grandson joined him for his December trip. Several want to go back. They think of the Mifsuds as extended family, too.
“You had unfinished business,” Jeana Crawford told her dad during a visit last week. “You had to find your friend. And now we’ll have these friends the rest of our lives.”