One Last Cruise to Alaska

by John Hedley

John and Bill
John and Bill

In June of 2008, my wife, Margie, and I shared a final cruise with a comrade-in-arms, Bill Strati, and his wife, Toni. Bill, Alan “Buck” Buckelew, and I had all served together in a reconnaissance platoon known as Fox Force in the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1969. Bill was dying of an uncommon cancer caused by his exposure to Agent Orange.

In Vietnam, we were a very small unit that normally operated far from other friendly forces; our survival was dependent to a large degree on not being found by the bad guys. Every one of us was totally dependent on everyone else for our safe return from our missions.

In that kind of environment, the bonds we developed were phenomenally strong. I don’t think we even realized just how strong and emotionally important those relationships were until we started having reunions in the summer of 2000. We quickly reestablished our wartime connections and incorporated our families as well. We were once again a true band of brothers.

One of our signature reunions was a cruise to Alaska in 2004, onboard the inaugural cruise of Sapphire Princess. With 16 vets and families and guests, we had more than 100 people on board; what a phenomenal and unforgettable experience. That trip was Margie’s and my first exposure to the world of Princess Cruises.

In 2006, Bill was diagnosed with a virulent cancer that’s normally found only in children; the normal course of treatment was amputation. Due to the location of his tumor however, that was impossible; the only treatment option was to remove the tumor and then watch closely for a reoccurrence. The surgery was accomplished, but the cancer reappeared in about a year. Bill fought as long and hard as he could, but by the spring of 2008, it was obvious that this was a fight that he couldn’t win.

Bill and Toni loved to cruise with Princess, having taken several more following the reunion cruise. After he had received all of the medical treatments possible, his final wish was to be able to take just one more cruise vacation and drink a lot of margaritas. I couldn’t let him take this voyage alone, so I contacted Buck and we arranged to take a cruise to Alaska in June of 2008 on the cruise ship, Golden Princess.

This last cruise was an emotional yet uplifting and rewarding experience. It was a great time for Bill and me to talk about lots of things covering life, Vietnam and anything but his impending death from cancer.  It was also an opportunity for Margie to give Toni a break and do fun things with her while I looked after Bill. For those few days we had a ball, I saw Bill laugh and smile like he had in the old days. We took shore excursions and attended the shows after dinner every night.

As the days progressed, he became stronger and happier. As I said, his wish was to cruise and drink margaritas, and he accomplished the latter in true Army fashion. He also amazed us all by the amount of lobster tail and crab legs he could eat; that fact became obvious when his tux fit a whole lot better on the second formal night! For a short while it was almost possible to forget about his illness and the inevitable result. Margie and I were truly blessed to have been able to spend that joyful week with Bill and Toni.

Most of the credit for the incredible experience was due to the Golden Princess crew, especially men like Mario Propato, the Maitre d’Hotel, and our head waiter, Vincenzo, and the rest of his staff. Buck called me after we boarded and told me that I needed to take special care of our buddy Bill. With the help of every one of the crew with whom we came in contact, my mission was easily accomplished.

When we returned to Seattle, Bill appeared to have regained a lot of his strength and it looked as though he might have temporarily held his cancer at bay. However, the relief proved to be just temporary and he was not able to attend our yearly reunion in August, as it became obvious that the end was approaching. I tried to talk with either Toni or Bill every day to see if there was anything that they needed.

One night Toni told me something that just really touched my heart; Bill still wanted one more cruise vacation. In one of his moments of clarity, he told Toni that he wanted to take one last cruise, that he wanted a plate on his casket that would name it the “Heavenly Princess.” I assured Toni that this wish would be honored and immediately called Buck to pass on the request.

When we gathered in St. Louis for the funeral shortly thereafter, there was a beautiful brass plaque on Bill’s coffin that honored our buddy’s final request. He was laid to rest to begin his final voyage in the Heavenly Princess.

John lives in Denver, North Carolina and has enjoyed five Princess cruises.