Every day, more than 600 World War II veterans die. Those still living average about 90 years old. So a nonprofit organization honoring them is in a race against time.
Like its sister chapters around the country, Honor Flight New England is paying tribute to as many World War II vets as possible with all-expenses-paid trips to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials that recognize their service. We went along on the most recent flight, on May 19, with 61 WWII veterans.
Coming To Terms With Experiences
A lot of the vets are in frail health — canes, oxygen, wheelchairs. But they’re high-spirited as three Logan Airport shuttle buses take them to the terminal, a State Police escort with flashing lights supplying VIP treatment. Each of the vets is accompanied by a family member or volunteer guardian, and there’s medical support, too, in case of any emergencies.
“I think, for a lot of them, it brings closure.”
Honor Flight New England’s founder
When the veterans reach the terminal at Logan — many of them wearing old military medals and hats — they’re greeted by firefighters, Vietnam vets, people waiting for flights and current service members, all of whom thank them for their service.
One of the vets is 87-year-old Joe Drago, a Marine from West Roxbury wounded on Okinawa, the last and bloodiest conflict in the Pacific theater. He says that, until recently, he didn’t talk much about his time in the war, read about it or watch war movies, in part because of survivor guilt.
“You know, why me?” Drago says. “How come I came home and all my other buddies didn’t come home? That lives with us, too. And how do you describe some of the horrors?”
Drago fought in the Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill, where some Marine units, including his, lost more than 90 percent of their men in a sea of mud, rain, blood and bodies.
“All our tanks got blown up — boom, boom, boom,” Drago recalls. “A bunch of Marines start running up the hill and all of a sudden you could hear it — zhhhhh, boom! Right in the middle of all these Marines. It was a phosphorous bomb. It melted them all.” His voice trails off. “Boy,” he says quietly, “it’s all coming back.”
Once the vets are on board a Southwest Airlines charter flight, the pilot — an Air Force vet himself — comes out of the cockpit to thank them. “I’m humbled to be up here in front of you,” he tells the group. An hour later, when the veterans land in Baltimore, they’re met by another outpouring of appreciation from strangers for what they did almost 70 years ago.
“I see all these people thanking me and I’m glad I did it now,” says Elroy Armstrong, an 87-year-old from New Hampshire who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He explains that, because of his Honor Flight experience, he’s now glad he served in the war despite having spent most of his life not feeling that way.
“I felt as though I did it for nothing, you know? It’s just — this is overwhelming,” he says. “Now I know people are happy that I did do it. And I’m going to be glad from now on.”
Armstrong’s daughter Frances is accompanying him on this trip and says her dad never talked about his military service. “You don’t want to know,” he’d tell her. She says it’s about time he let it all out.
“I’m sad to see him crying,” she adds, “but I’m glad to see him dealing with his emotions and realizing that people do care. Because he came home [from the war] and off the plane, bag down, to work. It’s like nobody recognized anything ever happened.”
“Seeing what I saw here,” her father says, “I would do it again. I’d do it 10 times more for my country. I should be laughing but, geez, I can’t laugh. I’m crying. I haven’t cried for years!”
Roll Call And Mail Call
The group’s first stop in Washington is the World War II Memorial, which just opened in 2004, almost six decades after the war ended. And there awaits a surprise: Bob Dole, a WWII veteran himself. The vets flock around the former U.S. senator and his wife Elizabeth to pose for pictures. Dole, who was badly wounded in the war, is frail and in a wheelchair, like many of them, but the vets greet him like a rock star.
Veteran Crosby Goshgarian of Watertown gets another unexpected treat: His daughter and son-in-law drove up from Philadelphia to meet him.
“I didn’t even know they were going to be here,” he says. “I was so thrilled! It meant so much to me to be at this memorial, especially the way I saw it. Oh my God, I could never duplicate it.”
The WWII memorial is sprawling and stately, a vast expanse of granite around a pool of fountains. The vets spread out to take it all in, and the accolades from passersby keep coming.
Dorothea Otis of Millis is one of four female veterans on the trip. She was a military nurse who received a Purple Heart for getting shot by a sniper, and this is her first visit to the memorial. “I think it’s tremendous. Awesome. It’s beautiful,” she says.
Each time they get back on the bus, the vets get to reminisce by taking part in “roll call.” And they’re off and on the bus a lot. From the WWII memorial, they head to the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Then to the Vietnam and Korean war memorials, and the Lincoln and Air Force memorials. At the memorial to Iwo Jima, Joe Byron, Honor Flight New England’s founder, wells up. Even though he’s been organizing these flights for four years, each group of vets gets him emotional.
“Twenty-seven trips [since the organization started] and it still gets me every time. Imagine that!” he says. “These guys are just incredible.”
Byron’s goal is to make this one of the best days of these veterans’ lives. So on the bus ride back to the airport, he lets them relive a happy routine of their war days: mail call. Each vet is given a large envelope containing letters of appreciation written by school children, friends and family members.
“Uncle Clarence, we want to thank you for being a great uncle that served in the military,” reads one. “We would not have the country we have today if it wasn’t for men like you.”
Drago has a whole stack of letters, including ones from his daughter, granddaughter and grandson. One begins “Dear Nonno,” Italian for grandfather. But he doesn’t get very far reading it before tears start to fall. He puts his mail back in the envelope for later, when he’s alone.
Byron thinks a lot about how these vets cope with all the unearthed memories when they get back home.
“I think, for a lot of them, it brings closure,” he says. “They’re coming to the closure of it and saying, ‘Hey, you know, what we did was good. We saved the country and it wasn’t lost. Our sacrifice wasn’t lost.’ ”
The vets and their guardians capped off the day with celebratory dancing in the airport before flying back to Boston.
There are 105 Honor Flight chapters around the country, and terminally ill vets from any war are accepted on a priority basis. After serving World War II vets, the organization will move on to veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars.