WWII veterans take Honor Flight to D.C. memorial

WWII Honor Flight Veterans

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery stands not only as a monument to sacrifice, but as a promise to the men and women of the military that a grateful nation will never forget their service.

It is a promise made good to 22 New Mexico World War II veterans on a cloudy June morning.

“We were just young damn kids,” remembered Joe Ryan, an Air Force veteran, “But everybody knew their job.”

The Second World War was the kind of all-encompassing, nationwide effort that is hard to understand unless you lived it. And then, it’s impossible to forget.

“Everybody you talked to, everything you did was so intent on getting this thing done and won,” said Army veteran Bill Lahvic.

Ellis Fish joined the Army Air Corps, the precursor to today’s Air Force, at age 17. He remembers that his mother, and the mothers of 18 other high school classmates, had to pick up his high school diploma because they were already enlisted.

“We were just young damn kids,”— Air Force veteran Joe Ryan

“Whatever it took to get that done, whether it cost you your life or not,” said Fish. “You thought more about what we had to do.”

With freedom in the balance, 16 million U.S. servicemen went to war at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

“We all had to go sometime,” said David Epstein, who became a radar technician in the Army Air Corps.

And they all had to go home.

Millions of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines poured back onto their native soil.

‘We’ve run out of time’

Joe Ryan, who stayed in the Army Reserves as a first lieutenant, landed in San Francisco, “got on a train and went back to Rochester, New York. Got married and got a job at Kodak.”

An Air Force veteran himself, New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services Secretary Tim Hale isn’t surprised at the story. “That’s that generation. They just put their head down and they started working and building what we have today.”

The millions of Joe Ryans, Bill Lahvics and Ellis Fishes were so good at doing what their country asked, that their country began to take them for granted. It took nearly 60 years to build the World War II Memorial.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are only about one million World War II veterans still alive. New Mexico’s share is barely 8,000. With hundreds of veterans passing away each day, it’s a certainty that many will never see the memorial.

Tim Williamson, a New Mexico businessman and president of the charitable foundation that bears his last name, says it didn’t take him long to realize he could help. Williamson and Tim Hale got together and started a Northern New Mexico chapter of the Honor Flight Network.

Their goal is simple: get as many World War II veterans to the memorial as they can before it’s too late.

“I don’t know how else to say it. We just, we’ve run out of time,” Williamson said.

Inaugural flight

After nine months of planning, fundraising and cajoling, a teary-eyed Williamson looked on as 22 World War II veterans from places like Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Arroyo Seco and Raton loaded onto city buses for another trip of a lifetime.

Grateful veterans and servicemen and women saluted and loaded bags, and the Albuquerque Police Department motorcycle unit shut down Interstate 25 as they escorted the vets to the Sunport.

Even the Transportation Security Administration got in on the act, whisking the vets through the TSA checkpoint and prompting Ellis Fish, who hadn’t flown in 25 years to quip, “I don’t know what everyone’s complaining about.”

Along with their “guardians” – friends and family members who paid for the privilege of escorting the vets every step of the way – the squad of 80 and 90-somethings boarded an American Airlines jet donated specifically to them by the airline for the entire trip.

Ushered onto the runway by arching water cannons from Sunport fire trucks, the veterans took off for Washington, D.C. and the World War II Memorial.

Within hours, faces were glued to airplane windows as Honor Flight 0614 flew over the nations’ capital and on to Baltimore.

At the Baltimore airport, an Honor Flight ground crew shouted a welcome as complete strangers applauded.

Ruth Denman wiped away a tear as she stood next to her husband, Doug, and his father.

“These men gave all,” said a beaming John Denman. “And the least we can do is honor ’em.”

Suzanne Ferguson was also hustling by, headed back home to Florida after a business trip. The arrival stopped her in her tracks.

“My dad is a Vietnam veteran,” she said. “(World War II veterans) went through something so incredible together with the common goal of securing our country and protecting our freedom. How can you not love that?”

The Memorial

That sentiment is exactly what pushed the Honor Flight volunteers all the way to Washington, D.C., where one day later, the 22 veterans were wheeled into the World War II Memorial by their guardians.

Joe Ryan beamed at the memorial and the crowds of school children, “This is wonderful. Oh, boy. Hi there!”

The group was an instant hit. A Texas high school band immediately clued in to what was transpiring. Passersby couldn’t help but utter a quick “thank you” or give a lingering hug. Alert middle school teachers gave students marching orders to meet a veteran.

David Epstein was overwhelmed.

“Brought tears to my eyes,” he said, recalling a conversation with a student. “She said, ‘Sir, thank you very much for your service and thanks for telling us today. I’ll remember you the rest of my life.’”

For a few precious hours, veterans who came home from war and packed away not just a bag full of gear, but a lifetime full of feelings had the chance to sit and be honored and remember.

“I’m impressed with it,” said Lahvic. “But also it brings the regrets of those who didn’t come back.”

At the west end of the memorial’s great oval is a wall and a reflecting pool. The wall has more than 4,000 stars. Each one represents 100 dead or missing servicemen from the war.

Inaugural flight

After nine months of planning, fundraising and cajoling, a teary-eyed Williamson looked on as 22 World War II veterans from places like Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Arroyo Seco and Raton loaded onto city buses for another trip of a lifetime.

The group lingered, overstaying their planned stop by more than an hour.

“Don’t worry,” Williamson said into a charter bus intercom. “We’ll stay as long as you like. Dinner can wait on us.”

The group toured the Lincoln, Vietnam and Korean War Memorials, where the procession of 22 wheelchairs, mandatory transportation despite some spirited grumbling, received an ovation once more by fellow tourists.

A Navy Petty Officer, 2nd Class, with a mischievous gleam in his eye, Sylvestre Sisneros couldn’t hide his appreciation.

“It’s a great thing for a lot of us guys who never had the chance to come down here,” he said.

As Sisneros and his fellow veterans loaded on the bus after a final visit to the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, they allowed exhaustion to take over, but only for a couple of hours.

More than a trip

That night, in an air-conditioned hotel ballroom, stories flew.

David Epstein and Joe Ryan traded stories after realizing Epstein’s radio work had likely helped Ryan’s crew fly their plane.

Like many, Army veteran José Garcia marveled at the reaction the group won from school children.

“School kids from all over, I guess. School kids like crazy. They would just come over and shake our hand,” he said. “It almost made me cry.”

Garcia’s family said he’s not one to tell war stories. Garcia himself explained that it’s not easy for many veterans to return to all they saw and did after so many years.

“We used to cry about it and then laugh about it,” he said, because so many men who served were barely out of high school and didn’t know how else to handle the emotional toll of war.

Seventy years later, Honor Flight gave them the chance to that once again.

Then, it gave them a little bit more.

With bags packed and stowed for the return flight and the jet cruising westward over the country, an Honor Flight volunteer grabbed the intercom and began the time-honored military tradition of mail call.

One-by-one, each veteran received a manila envelope filled with letters of thanks from family, loved ones, school kids and strangers.

Young boy holds up a sign welcoming home Honor Flight veterans
Photos: ABQ Honor Flight returns

Ellis Fish fought back tears as he thumbed through his letters. Many remained unopened, saved for a private reading.

Maurice Bertram, a Navy veteran, shared part of his mail with his guardian and son.

And when, at last, Honor Flight 0614 landed back in Albuquerque, 22 veterans received a welcome home unlike anything they ever imagined.

As the weary squad stepped through security doors into the Sunport terminal, the entire airport erupted with cheers. Hundreds of people lined the upper floor, waving flags and delivering salutes. As the veterans made their way down to the airport’s main hall, a military band played the songs of each military branch. Hundreds more people gathered to welcome home men who thought their contribution to their country was past such appreciation.

“I’ll never forget it,” said Ellis Fish.

The 22 men of Northern New Mexico’s first Honor Flight returned home with enough memories for another lifetime and the promise that all they gave, all they sacrificed, will always be remembered by a nation that owes them everything.

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