Donald Thornton was still in awe Sunday.
“The reception was overwhelming. Just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes,” he said. “We went into the airport, I couldn’t believe it. There must have been 500 people there.”
Thornton, of Greenwood, was one of 22 World War II veterans to participate in Saturday’s Honor Flight, the fifth run by the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Association, to the nation’s capitol. This flight was sponsored by VFW Post 183 in Lakewood and dedicated in memory of Kenneth B. Goff of Warwick, who went missing in action in Vietnam on Aug. 24, 1967.
Like previous Honor Flights spearheaded by retired Providence Fire Chief George Farrell, the veterans and their guardians assembled long before sunrise Saturday morning at Station 8 on Post Road near Ann & Hope. With an escort of fire trucks and police, sirens blaring and lights flashing, two RIPTA buses then made the short hop to the airport terminal.
It was at the terminal that Thornton, who served in the Navy and was stationed in Washington state and Hawaii toward the end of the war, got the surprise he’ll be talking about for some time. Ranks of police and firemen from across the state saluted their entrance as drums and bagpipes played and people cheered.
Thornton couldn’t describe the emotion, which he said he felt again when a similar group of police, firefighters and military greeted their flight in Baltimore.
Thornton received a more personal welcome on his return from his daughter, Beth Gauthier, and her friend Matt Baron. The pair visited Ann & Hope to buy a flag, red, white and blue balloons and similarly colored leis before staking out front row seats at the arrival area. They weren’t alone. Family and friends of the vets packed the area, patiently waiting for the return flight from a day of visiting the World War II and Vietnam Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and other Washington sites. Weather delayed the flight by more than an hour. Senators Jack Reed and Robert Dole personally greeted the group in Washington, as they have done for other Honor Flights.
It was a touch mentioned by many of the returning vets.
“He’s a well-to-do 87-year-old,” Gauthier said proudly of her father, who lives alone. He enjoys boating, fishing and recently bought a new car. She said he had tried to get his younger and older brothers Raymond and Robert – who are also WWII veterans – to join him on the flight, but that couldn’t be worked out.
While Rhode Island flights have received extensive coverage since Farrell started them, Thornton happened to see something on his computer.
“I clicked on it and there was a video,” he said. There was also a form that he completed and submitted.
Farrell said Saturday another 24 WWII veterans would make the trip on the 70th anniversary of D-Day on June 6. He’s also planning to run a third Honor Flight on Sept. 27.
“Our goal is to get 100,” he said. “We’re still looking for WWII vets.”
As practice, each of the vets is matched with a guardian who makes contact prior to the flight, learning of any particular conditions the vet may require. Wheelchairs are available for all of them, although they may not be required. A medic accompanied the group as well.
Thornton’s guardian turned out to be retired Warwick fire battalion chief and fellow resident of Greenwood, Ed Thurston. Thurston picked up Thornton at 4 a.m. to get the day started.
It was Thurston’s first honor fight.
“It was very moving,” he said of the airport reception. “I get choked up talking about it now.”
Thurston, who like other guardians paid for his flight, was impressed by the organization and the careful attention to the personal needs of each veteran.
But the visit to the memorial and recollections of the war were also painful for some.
Navy veteran James Loftin, 92, who served in several amphibious landings in North Africa and later Italy and France, remembers the Battle of Anzio as the worst. In a single day there were 955 American causalities, making it the highest single-day death toll for a U.S. division.
Loftin, whose youthful looks and easy smile belie his age, was emotionally moved as he remembered the carnage.
He also paused to reflect on war.
“I hope people learn something,” he said as his family gathered around his wheelchair. “We can’t be the policemen of the world. It won’t work.”