When Jerry Latham read in the Warwick Beacon that 62 World War II veterans traveled to Washington earlier this October, he asked his daughter, Nancy Cornish, why he had never been invited to go.
Latham not only went to the national’s capitol Saturday, but a Navy commander awarded him several medals he earned but never received.
Latham’s participation as a member of the fourth flight organized by the Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs’ Honor Flight was put together in a matter of days. Following her father’s inquiry, Cornish submitted an application to Honor Flight and Latham’s name was placed at the bottom of the list. When George Farrell, who started the program, got a call to when Latham might go, he was surprised to see the Warwick Neck resident is 103 years old.
He decided Latham should be pushed to the head of the line.
Latham wasn’t showing his age Saturday morning. He was ready to “move out” soon after boarding a bus at the fire station next to Ann & Hope at about 5:15. Beside him was retired Warwick fire battalion chief Stephen Hay, his guardian for the day. Guardians were dressed in blue T-shirts while the veterans wore red shirts. They all wore nametags and veterans and their guardians had matching numbers – so no one would get lost and to keep count following all the stops in Washington.
Throughout the day, Hay e-mailed photos to his daughter.
“Wherever he went, he seemed to be surrounded by young women in uniforms,” she said. “He was smiling.”
Saturday’s Flight was hosted by the South Kingstown Elks Lodge 1899, which paid airfare and expenses for 24 veterans. Guardians picked up their own costs, although that hasn’t always been the case.
On the last flight, Ocean State Job Lot and their customers not only underwrote the cost of 62 Rhode Island veterans and guardians but also groups that left from Long Island and Massachusetts.
Farrell has been the force behind the effort, lining up financial support and using his extensive network to put together extra touches, like escorts for the veterans, police and fire honor guards at Green and, a favorite of participants and other passengers, the pipe and drum corps.
On Saturday, Mayor Scott Avedisian joined the sendoff, along with Police Chief Stephen McCartney and Fire Chief Edmund Armstrong.
There promises to be more honor flights.
Farrell said he has 22 veterans on his waiting list and, as long as there are veterans, he’ll work to get them to the Washington memorial. The next flight will probably be in March, he said.
The desire to honor aging and departing veterans is shared by many of the guardians. Often, family members act as guardian, as was the case of Guido Rapone Jr. of Johnston, who kept watch over his father Guido, who served on an ammunitions ship in the Pacific. On the bus to the airport, Rapone was sitting next to Benny Monaco of Cranston, who served on a destroyer in the Pacific.
“We were probably your escort,” said Monaco, getting a chuckle from his traveling companion. Monaco’s guardian was his grandson, Dean Faiola.
There was not family connection between Gloria Lichtenstein and Nadina DiRuzzo. Lichtenstein was 19 when she joined the WAVES, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. Her father had served in the Navy and he was delighted and willingly signed the paperwork so she could enlist. She said she took the job of transmitting coded communiqués so that a man could go to the battle lines.
DiRuzzo, a special education teacher who recently moved to the state from New York City, said she “always wanted to do something” for World War II veterans.
Cornish said she wanted to be sure her father received his medals. She wrote the Navy a couple of years ago about them. Latham served at Quonset, and later aboard the USS New York, as a chief storekeeper. His tour of duty included Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Her father signed the necessary papers and the medals finally came. She suspects her father forgot all about them, so, when he was placed on the Honor Flight, she thought that would be the appropriate time for a presentation. Farrell used his connections and arranged for a Navy commander to do the honors at a dinner before the return to Rhode Island. Latham received the Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Navy Good Conduct Medal, the Honorable Service and Discharge pins.
Cornish’s dream was fulfilled.
Not quite. She had hoped to go with her father to Washington. That couldn’t be put together in time but that’s not stopping her. She’s volunteering to serve as a guardian for the next flight.