WASHINGTON — Zero hour arrived Wednesday morning for the Central Valley’s World War II veterans, momentarily cast back in time.
A Marine boarded the bus, joining a paratrooper. A sailor settled next to an infantryman. A mess sergeant sat down near a waist gunner. It was raining and the operation was changing by the minute and these were, in actual fact, old men.
And yet, everything was A-OK by the time the inaugural Central Valley Honor Flight reached the World War II Memorial.
“They built this for us,” Fresno resident and Navy veteran Harold Hale said approvingly.
It seemed so.
The rain stopped about the time three buses carrying Hale and 68 other Valley veterans reached the memorial on the National Mall; remarkably, three minutes ahead of schedule. The sun came out, and so did some memories.
Here’s Hale, 86, recalling what happened the day the men on his ship learned the war had ended in August 1945
“All the sirens, all the things they had to make noise with, were all sounding. It was chaotic,” said Hale, a retired telephone installer. “Of course, we all wanted to go over the side.”
Here’s Julian Mazuka, a retired sheep-shearing contractor from Lemoore, Calif., recalling how he and his 17th Airborne Division brethren breakfasted on coffee and donuts just before they parachuted over the Rhine in March 1945 as part of Operation Varsity. He wears his pride on his head – a white paratrooper’s ball cap – but speaks modestly of what he did.
“I was,” Mazuka said, “just a rifleman.”
And here’s Sherian Eckenrod, explaining how she belatedly discovered that her husband, retired Fresno City College business Dean Gerry A. Eckenrod, had survived more than three years of combat with the hard-fighting 1st Infantry Division. Eckenrod’s service included being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest medal for valor, as well as time in a German prisoner-of-war camp.
“One day,” Sherian Eckenrod said, “he asked me to get something out of the closet and I found a box there, and inside were all these medals. I had dated him all that time, and I never knew.”
As she spoke, her husband sat nearby in his wheelchair, lost in thought. He is 96, and not entirely himself these days, but he could understand the place he had arrived at: a memorial whose stones were etched with the names of battles he once fought.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Gerry Eckenrod said. “It’s here forever, and you just kind of feel like you’re part of the family.”
The Honor Flight program sponsors all-expense paid trips for World War II veterans to visit the nation’s capital and, in particular, the World War II Memorial that opened in 2004. The memorial honors the 16 million men and women who served in the U.S. armed forces, including the 405,399 Americans who died during the war.
The visit Wednesday also brought a salute from members of Congress, at a Library of Congress lunch attended by the two remaining World War II veterans serving in the House of Representatives: Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas.
“You all contributed in a special way,” Dingell told the Central Valley veterans gathered in the library’s majestic Great Hall.
In a surprise gesture, the lunch culminated in Oakhurst, Calif., resident William Kenneth Miller, a 91-year-old Marine Corps veteran, being given a reproduction of a painting entitled, “The Counterattack of ‘H’ Battery.” The painting depicts, among many fighting men, a young Ken Miller standing his ground.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you, for a job well done,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
“Semper Fi!” shouted someone from the audience.
The Central Valley Honor Flight is the sixth of its kind in California and the 136th to be organized nationwide since the first one was established in 2005. The group plans another trip next March.
The total cost of the trip was $138,000. The “guardians,” red-jacketed companions – family members, volunteers and others – who accompanied each veteran, contributed $1,000 each to offset expenses. A total of $187,000 was raised, with a $10,000 starter grant from the Honor Flight Network.
“It’s a privilege to be part of this,” said Thomas Boeh, athletic director at Fresno State University and one of the guardians.
Boeh was accompanying Navy veteran Jonas Hofer, an affable 89-year-old Fresno resident who once spent 16 hours floating in the Pacific Ocean awaiting rescue after Japanese torpedoes ripped through his ship, the USS Houston. The D.C. trip, said a beaming Hofer, was “wonderful.”
Seventy-four Central Valley veterans originally registered three weeks ago to participate in the program. Since then, one of the veterans passed away and four others fell too ill to fly. Some health issues also arose Tuesday night. Meanwhile, two of the four elevators at the Hilton Crystal City hotel were out, reviving memories of “hurry up and wait.” The early morning buses didn’t arrive when expected. Improvise, adapt and overcome became the standing order of the day.
“Guardians!” Central Valley Honor Flight President Alan Perry shouted out at one point. “Keep an eye on your veterans!”
An Army veteran, Perry formerly directed the Veterans Administration Central California Health Care System. He managed to keep his cool Wednesday morning, occasionally improvising as needed with the help of several Kern County organizers who had made the trip before. Quick stops were rearranged at the Iwo Jima Memorial and the U.S. Air Force Memorial when the morning timing got tricky. But the bus drivers managed to maneuver their way through rush hour traffic to pull up in front of the World War II Memorial.
The men, some in wheelchairs and some afoot, made their way through the memorial. There was a brief ceremony, and an unfurling of a Fresno State flag to honor a graduate, Army Air Corps First Lt. Melvin Rouch, who died in a plane crash in 1943.
Following the Library of Congress lunch and a quick picture-snapping stop at the U.S. Navy Memorial, the veterans made it to the Vietnam and Korean war memorials before returning to their hotel.
“It’s been pretty rough for us old people,” allowed Navy veteran Charles W. Baley, a 91-year-old retired Fresno County deputy sheriff, “but it’s been worth it.”