WWII vets soar on Honor Flight
The headlights of motorcycles ridden by Warwick Police officers Greg Johnson, Matt Barlow and Robert Hart pierced the darkness Saturday morning as they pulled onto Post Road.
Even more impressive was the reflection of red flashing lights from police and fire vehicles reflecting on buildings on both sides of the road. This was not an emergency or a crisis.
Probably few of the early morning motorists knew anything about the motorcade – which included two giant RIPTA buses – or where the contingent was going.
In a few minutes the motorcade pulled into TF Green Airport and stopped in front of the terminal. Only airport personnel, some of who stood by awaiting wheelchairs, were outside the terminal.
The motorcade had formed at the fire station on Post Road where those participating crossed under an extended lit ladder and were shown into the station bay to be greeted. Warwick firefighters and police were everywhere. Many of them would provide an escort for the short ride to the airport terminal.
These were special people, veterans of World Ward II and those who would be accompanying them for a full day in the nation’s capital.
The mood was jovial and there was an air of expectation.
Guardian Wayne Moore was paired with John Anderson from East Greenwich. The two sat near the front door to the bus and took in all the excitement, although they could be some of the most animated. Anderson visited the World War II Memorial about five years ago. It was raining then and he was anxious to return. He asked for his phone number, slowly articulating the last four digits – 1751.
“You know how I know it?” he asked. “That’s the year I was born.”
Another vet was asked his name.
“Tom, the atom bomb,” Thomas Lacombe replied with a grin.
Frivolity was the norm. Julie Latessa, a teacher who served as a guardian, sat between two vets, Tom Breggia who she was matched with and Alvin Mandy. Latessa vowed to have everyone dancing by the end of the day.
Mandy said he’d be one of them, although “I only have one good leg.”
At the terminal a delegation that included Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, Fire Chief Edmund Armstrong, Police Chief Stephen M. McCarthy and City Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson were present to greet the 42 World War II veterans and their escorts.
As the group entered the building, two kilt-clad bagpipe bands of the Providence Firefighters and Police, five color guards, uniformed police and firemen came to attention. The pipers came to life and scores of spectators did everything from whistle to clap while waving American flags along with handmade and handheld signs for different veterans.
Those people also formed what someone called “a human tunnel,” as each veteran, who was either pushed in a wheelchair or walked on his or her own, received an extraordinary sendoff while walking toward security and later to Gate 17 where they boarded a Southwest Airlines plane for Honor Flight Bravo.
The Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all the sacrifices during World War II.
In Rhode Island, the program is run by the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Association and is the brainchild of former Providence Fire Chief George Farrell and is a day-long trip to Washington, D.C. where the veterans are treated like royalty while viewing monuments, including the prestigious one for World War II.
Each veteran was accompanied by a guardian, who paid his or her own way and made sure veterans did not pay for anything.
Much of the program is funded by Ocean State Job Lot, which generated enough revenue during a customer-drive at 108 New England stores to cover all the costs to transport the veterans to and from the nation’s capital Saturday.
“Ocean State Job Lot is committed to this program,” Farrell said. “They gave 42 [World War II] veterans the thrill of a lifetime; a day they will never, ever forget. Without Ocean State Job Lot, this program doesn’t exist.”
From the heroes’ sendoff until the group returned late Saturday evening, there was pomp and circumstance.
“I will venture to say that 42 veterans had a day they will never forget,” Tim McLaughlin, Johnston’s fire chief who doubles as president of the RI Fire Chiefs Association, said. “For me personally, it was something I’ll never forget. I’m proud to be involved, but remember, without George [Farrell] getting behind this, it doesn’t happen.”
“It was very emotional for a lot of people,” said David Kurowski, who was the guardian for his father, Chester.
David retired about two years ago as emergency management services coordinator for the Warwick Fire Department. With his medical background he was a natural for the trip, although a medic was a member of the Honor Flight team.
He said for many of the World War II vets the experience provided a “spark of energy” that made it challenging for guardians who feared they would overextend themselves.
David said his father, who served in the Army in the Pacific theater in a field artillery unit, and others in the group were especially touched by the playing of “Taps” at the War Memorial. Mail call was also a high moment when the veterans received a package of cards and letters from family and friends as well as school kids and the Honor Flight.
“He still hasn’t opened his packet,” David said in a phone call Sunday. “He said it was so neat that he was going to save it.”
During World War II, Chester, who almost missed his troop ship as he was in the base hospital with a serve case of poison ivy, saw action in New Guinea and later during the invasion of the Philippines. When the war ended, he was in Manila.
On Saturday, David said his father “loved the attention,” especially from a young female petty officer who they met in Washington. The two apparently hit it off and Chester regaled her with stories from the war.
He said his father was most impressed, if not overwhelmed, by the organization and the pageantry of the event.
“He loved the pipers,” he said.
Ocean State Job Lot Public Relations Director David Sarlitto said, “There are so many moving parts to this operation; it’s incredible when you think of what is transpiring here and in Washington. Everything is on a time schedule, it’s incredible ... a beautiful thing for our veterans.”
Two Warwick residents, Russell D. McCombs and Oliver Lemlin, were among the veterans who made the trip.
“What a great trip!” said McCombs, 88, who lives in Greenwood and was accompanied by guardian and grandson Paul Raymond Giroux, who is a lieutenant in the Johnston Fire Department. “I never expected anything like that; I have more hugs and kisses going from here and through Baltimore than I’ve had in the last 20 years.”
McCombs, who was in the U.S. Air Force’s Eighth Air Force 490th Bomb Group, had no idea what Honor Flight Bravo would be like. Yet, he almost did not take the trip.
“I’m in a wheelchair,” he explained. “I guess that’s the last time around for me. I really appreciated it; it was amazing to see the monument and to find out that it was built by a Rhode Islander.”
McCombs said he “was thrilled to be down there [in D.C.] with my grandson” because “he knows the whole experience.”
He also explained that he fell at home not long ago and was leery about going because “I can’t move that good. Most of us are 85 to 93 ... but I’m glad I went. My whole family ... even my great-grandchildren were there when we came back.”
Oliver Lemlin, 86, who lives in the Matthew XXV Apartments on Greenwich Avenue in Warwick, added, “Oh geez, it was a beautiful trip. What an experience ... I gotta hand it to those people who came out to the airport and greeted us; they all got up early and paid respect to us. Lots of people here and in Washington thanked us for our service to the country.”
Lemlin, who served with the U.S. Army’s Red Star Sixth Division and was assigned to G-Company’s 63rd Infantry, remembered how he landed on Lady Island when he was just 18 years old.
“I fought in two conflicts,” he recalled.
“On June 4, 1945 I became 19 ... I got wounded on July 3, 1945 and wound up in the hospital. To me, I’m one of the lucky ones; we are all one of the lucky ones, the heroes are all buried underneath white crosses.”
Lemlin’s guardian was Jack Thomas, chief of the Green Airport Fire Department.
“I couldn’t ask for a better guide,” Lemlin said. “He was a real nice guy; he took care of me every step of the way. And George Farrell, another great guy, he did a wonderful job and gave us the thrill none of us will ever forget.”
Farrell, whose inspiration to begin the Honor Flight program here came from his late father, who was also a Providence Fire Fighter.
“This is my memorial to him,” Farrell said. “He would have loved the opportunity to go on a trip like this. It’s my tribute ... my memorial to him and my grandfather who was also a fire fighter.”
Farrell then paused before adding, “These veterans are part of our greatest generation. When we went to the World War II Memorial, we spent a lot of time there. It was very emotional for the veterans. It made memories flow, good and bad. I’m actually proud to be part of this. We even had a surprise for our veterans at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
That surprise came from some of the soldiers who are part of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Once their shift was over, they changed into civilian cloths and shared stories with the veterans.
While every part of Saturday was special for Theodore J. Richard Jr., 87, of Johnston who was accompanied by his son Theodore Richard, it was the surprising discussion the veterans enjoyed with those soldiers that was really informative for Richard, who served in the U.S. Army’s 87th Infantry Division-European Theater and was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
“I was surprised to hear what those soldiers went through to get that duty,” Richard Jr. said. “They came out and mixed in with our group ... everyone ... the guys in wheelchairs ... it was quite an honor to be part of changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
Richard Jr., who was a scout and spent lots of time behind enemy lines, goes to Our Lady of Grace Church every day. He later told of his Army days as a scout and how “there were 10 of us who went out [to scout the enemy] and only two returned.”
As for Saturday, “We just couldn’t believe what was happening,” Richard Jr. said. “I didn’t think people would express themselves like they did. So many years have gone by; all of a sudden there’s lots of people saying ‘Thank you for your service’ ... that was pretty touching for all of us. We’re all in our 80s and 90s ... there aren’t many of us left.”
Like all the veterans, Richard Jr. admitted, “The whole thing was overwhelming. The one thing that struck me was that we lost over 400,000 men and women who were killed in World War II. There are 4,028 stars on the monument; each star represents 100 who are dead. That created a few tears for all of us.”