Veterans flown to Washington to visit war memorials

Mark, a husky guy in sunglasses, black leather jacket and a full blond-and-gray beard, approached my

Mark, a husky guy in sunglasses, black leather jacket and a full blond-and-gray beard, approached my father at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

He was quick with a handshake. And kind words.

“Thank you for your service,” he told my dad, Harold “Jeff” Wilkin Jr. of Rochester, who spent the first half of the 1940s with the U.S. Army Air Force during WWII.

My 90-year-old father knows few motorcycle guys like Mark, a road captain with the Winston-Salem chapter of the national Harley Owners Group cycle club. But he met bunches of riders — and fellow veterans — during an Honor Flight out of Rochester on Sept. 17.

Overdue celebrations

The Honor project has been around for a few years now — veterans from around the country are flown to Washington to see the inspiring war memorials and accept thanks from a grateful public. Folks who run the plane rides and sightseeing tours think the fliers, sailors, soldiers, nurses and support staffers never received grand welcomes home when the war ended in 1945. Days and nights in Washington are meant to be long-overdue celebrations.

Our party started early on a still-dark Saturday morning. We were up at 2 a.m., on the road to the Greater Rochester International Airport at 3:15 a.m. and ready for a group muster at 4. It felt like a military operation, with 46 veterans all wearing Rochester’s burnt-orange shirts and 46 veteran “guardians” — people who looked out for the men and women — dressed in bright orange shirts.

Some of the vets talked about their times in uniform over a fast-food breakfast. My father was stationed in Canada’s Yukon Territory, part of the 1461st Air Transport Command. These guys were in the airplane business, and business was booming.

Our Russian allies needed aircraft during the early ’40s, and the most efficient way to get them to the U.S.S.R. was to develop a ferry route between Great Falls, Mont., and Fairbanks, Alaska — 1,900 miles. The route opened in 1942 with major stops in Edmonton, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake and Whitehorse. Fighter planes — like P-39s and A-20s — landed for gas and light maintenance. Some planes that visited Watson were just off the assembly line, and received their 25-hour inspections from crewmen with frost on their breaths.

Cold duty

“One time, it was 62 degrees below zero,” Dad once told me. “I used to tell the folks back home in my letters the temperature; I’d put down the time I was writing, and if I underlined the minutes — like 3:20 — those were the degrees under zero . . . all the mail was censored coming out of Watson Lake.”

The Rochester Honor Flight crew was packed inside an AirTran 707 airliner and was in the predawn skies at 6 a.m. We landed at Baltimore Washington International Airport outside Washington at 7:14 a.m., and local veterans, citizens and current members of the armed forces lined corridors to welcome the visitors. Most of the veterans used wheelchairs to cruise the airport and memorials, and we guardians did the pushing.

Seven motorcyclists played traffic blockers for the group buses. I was really surprised at the number of bikers who wanted to thank the vets. One long-haired British biker told my father that Britain would have been in a real jam without help from the Americans. At the World War II Memorial, we ran into husky Mark twice. He took pictures of me and Dad both times; on the second occasion, I joked I would slip my personal photographer a few bucks.

“No sir,” Mark answered. “This debt has been paid in full.”

Changing of guard

The vets watched the famous changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. The Korean and Vietnam memorials were part of the itinerary. So was the Navy Plaza and the Marines-Iwo Jima and Air Force memorials. But we spent the most time at the World War II Memorial, a tribute in stone and still and rushing waters. It’s a peaceful and powerful place.

I think some emotions come because these men and women from the 1940s are kind of going back in time. Memories of their war years, times away from home and maybe lost comrades must come rushing back.

In a way, they can look back at the past with a wink, a smile . . . and probably a couple of tears. Long ago is long ago.

On Sept. 17, several Honor Flights were in Washington. And the veterans all seemed genuinely interested in meeting one another. My father struck up a conversation with Robert Altman of Walnut Creek, Calif., a navigator in the 8th Air Force. They talked about their plane rides, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

New friends

Dad also struck up a friendship with Joseph “Jiggs” Petrucci of Seneca Falls, an Army infantryman during his time of service. And Laurie Palmer, the volunteer nurse on our flight. Dad and Laurie talked about my mother, the late Kathleen Kane Wilkin. Mom was a captain in the Army Nurse Corps’ 19th General Hospital Unit and served in England, Wales and France during WWII.

Most Honor Flights are one-day affairs. The Rochester division springs for dinner and a hotel sleepover for the vets, free of charge. That included two free drinks at the bar, two Manhattans my father liked so much we added a third. Guardians paid $300 for the escort privilege.

There was another celebration when the orange shirts returned home to Rochester. Hundreds of people — relatives and friends of the travelers — brought signs and cameras and vociferously welcomed the folks back home.

Categories: Life and Arts

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