- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2014

On a quiet afternoon at Ronald Reagan National Airport, feet shuffle through the terminals and bags scrape across the floor. From Terminal 30 a trumpet begins to sound and onlookers cheer as a group of unsuspecting WWII and Korean War veterans shuffle up the jet bridge, greeted by a fanfare of patriotism.

On May 30, exactly one week before the 70th anniversary of D-Day, dozens of veterans flew from Dallas to Washington on the honor flight, a program that bring veterans from across the country to the nation’s capital to visit the memorials honoring the wars they served in.

“I felt very humbled. I’ve seen it before on TV, but I had no idea I would ever experience it,” said J.C. Campbell, a Korean War veteran. “It just makes you feel fantastic to be a part of all this.”

After landing, the group is whisked away to the National Mall to visit the World War II Memorial, many of them seeing it for the first time.

The memorial itself, nestled behind the Washington Monument, is designed to blend in with the surrounding city, reflecting the humble nature of the men and women who volunteered to fight in the war.

“I was ten years old when they bombed Pearl Harbor. We knew that if we didn’t do something, we were going to be taken over,” Mr. Campbell said while touring the memorial. “The young men, my cousins and my aunts, they all went to war, and they did it not begrudgingly. They did it because there was someone that attacked us, and they wanted to make sure that our way of life was protected.”

SEE ALSO: PRUDEN: D-Day, the 6th of June 1944

Many of the veterans spent their time honoring their fallen comrades — remarking on the wall of golden stars at the memorial, representing those who sacrificed their lives during the war.

“They’ve gone on to the next level, which we all will reach someday,” said Phil Faletto, a WWII veteran visiting the memorial for the first time on the honor flight.

As the veterans gathered for a group photo in front of the reflecting pool, the second horn of the day sounded, as 96-year-old David Hale, a former army band member, played taps and the veterans saluted. As the trumpet quieted, onlookers at the memorial joined in a chorus of “God Bless America.”

Leaving the memorial, the past came flooding back for the veterans. From Purple Heart recipients to prisoners of war, each one had an incredible story.

“I parachuted into the hands of the enemy,” said WWII veteran Leroy Williamson, recalling when his plane was shot down in Brunswick, Germany, where he was held prisoner for 14 months. He was still in captivity when he heard that Americans had landed on French shores on D-Day.

When asked how he felt hearing the news while being held in Germany, Mr. Williamson said smiling, “We just knew we was gonna get out real fast.”

On the way to Arlington National Cemetery, Mr. Campbell described how serving in the war changed him. Working in the scullery on a Navy ship, Mr. Campbell said he saw ladies brought on board to clean up after the soldiers — and were paid with table scraps.

“As little as we had, it was a whole lot more than what they had, and so I learned to appreciate my country then.”

Dangerous missions

Mr. Faletto recounted the dangerous missions he flew out of Hickam AFB in Hawaii on the Sunset Project, flying damaged B-29s back to the U.S. mainland as the war came to a close.

“The damage that was still visible from Pearl Harbor had not been repaired,” he recounted.

According to Mr. Faletto, the runway at Hickam was too short for the lumbering B-29s to take off with a full fuel tank, so the pilots would land at the naval base on the west side of the island to refuel and take off again in the early hours of the morning for a 12-hour flight to the mainland, using sun lines and three-star fixes for navigation on the faltering planes.

“They had been abandoned at Hickam,” Mr. Faletto said, “We would take a B-29 and fly it around the island and say, ‘This one will never make it, so we’re not going to take it back to the States,’ but we would take another one. We did lose one. [It] lost an engine coming across the Pacific. Unfortunately, the pilot hit a mountain range in California and didn’t make it.”

As the veterans arrived at Arlington to watch the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, they seemed not to realize that most in the crowd were watching them as much as they focused on the ceremony.

Students on a field trip lined up to shake the hand of every veteran on the honor flight, whispering, “Thank you for your service” as the ceremony ended.

“We appreciate you standing up with canes and walkers to honor the Changing of the Guard,” said Sgt. Tanner Welch, troop commander of the Old Guard, who spoke to the veterans after the ceremony.

Sgt. Karina Rosales, one of the active-duty service members aiding veterans on the trip, said that being with fellow soldiers was like coming home.

“When you see someone in uniform, even when you don’t know them, you know that they are part of you somehow,” she said. “So it’s like a brother- and sister-in-arms, and it will always be like that.”

As the tired group of veterans ended their day shuffling back to the bus, another scuffling was heard: the sound of the honor guard’s heel scraping the pavement as he marched, breaking his vigilant silence to honor the departing heroes.



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