The stories of courage, honor and persistence fuel George Farrell’s quest to find World War II veterans and include them in the next honor flight to the nation’s capital.
Honor Flight is a daylong experience where veterans, accompanied by a guardian, visit the World War II, Korean and Vietnam memorials and witness the changing of the guard at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Before flying back to Rhode Island, the day closes with a dinner where each veteran is named and honored during a mail call where they receive letters and commendations.
On Saturday the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Association conducted the 18th honor flight with 11 WWII and 13 Korean War veterans. One Navy veteran, William Duba of Newport and now living in the Veterans Home in Bristol, served in both wars as well as the Vietnam War.
Retired Providence Fire Chief Farrell and his devoted team of volunteers know there are more veterans in the community. The challenge is finding them.
Early Saturday morning, as two RIPTA buses led by an escort of fire engines and Warwick Police proceeded from the fire station near Ann & Hope to Green Airport, Farrell talked about his latest effort to reach WWII veterans.
Honor Flight sought to identify WWII veterans through Social Service and medical records only to discover they were blocked by privacy laws. Then the team hit on the idea of municipal veteran tax exemptions that are open to public review. With the help of the City of Providence, Farrell said Honor Flight has identified 100 WWII veterans who have not participated in the program. Now, the organization is working on means to best approach these veterans so that they, too, can be a part of an honor flight.
Identifying the veterans is but a small part of putting together an honor flight. Each flight takes tens of thousands of dollars – Honor Flight covers the full expenses of the veterans while the guardians are expected to pay their way – extensive coordination and scores of volunteers from police and fire honor guards and the Rhode Island Professional Firefighters Pipes and Drums who greet the veterans as they enter the airport terminal at 5 a.m. Local 2323 of the IBEW was the sponsor of Saturday’s flight. The airport reception, including community groups such as the scouts, service clubs, elected officials and cheering friends and family carrying banners and waving flags, is the start to a day where the veterans will be greeted numerous times by strangers applauding and thanking them for their service.
Richard Fazzio, 94, of Woonsocket, a Navy veteran who served as a coxswain of a landing craft of the first wave to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day, offered one of those stories that have Farrell and his team looking to find every WWII veteran before it’s too late.
“Did you see ‘Saving Private Ryan?’” Fazzio asked of the movie. “It was worse than that.”
Fazzio said most of the 37 men aboard the landing craft didn’t make it to the beach. He personally was shot in the arm with the bullet passing out his back. He was sent to Scotland to recover but was back aboard another landing craft two months later shuttling soldiers to France. Following the war, he worked for Pratt and Whitney and later the City of Woonsocket in the maintenance division. It was his work with the city that connected him with Honor Flight.
“She has been haunting me for five years. She roped me into it,” he said, looking to Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, the mayor of Woonsocket who served as his guardian. Also serving as guardians for Saturday’s flight were Baldelli-Hunt’s two sons.
Former Cranston Mayor John O’Leary was another guardian. O’Leary was paired with Korean War veteran Richard Bartlett of Warwick, who served on the small island of P-Y Do about 10 miles off the coast of the 38th Parallel known as “The Rock.” As Bartlett recalls, they had a landing strip twice a day when the retreating tide exposed the beach. Bartlett, who enlisted with the Air Force in January 1960 at the age of 19, was a member of a unit of about 100 men who tracked and guided planes making sorties over North Korea.
The next Honor Flight by the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Association is planned for Sept. 15. Farrell is hopeful of putting an all WWII veterans flight together. He already has four veterans signed up and, knowing Farrell, the Fire Chiefs Association and the sponsors that have stepped forward, another group of WWII veterans will be honored for the service they have rendered this country.