PAWTUCKET — There's “tired” and there's the “good kind of tired.” It seems the 42 Rhode Island World War II veterans who participated in a recent Honor Flight would put themselves in the latter category after their whirlwind day trip to the nation's capital.
Last Saturday, the veterans, who were each paired with a volunteer guardian, left T.F. Green Airport in the early morning on a flight bound for Baltimore, Maryland. From there, the group boarded a tour bus to view the World War II Memorial, which commemorates the brave service of all who fought. The trip also included visits to the Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and other Washington, D.C. military landmarks.
However, even more important than the planned sightseeing was the send-off. A motorcade escort brought the travelers to the airport, which teemed with well-wishers from every branch of the local military, as well as members of municipal police and fire departments. There was an honor guard, color guard and bagpipers. The mood was infectious, prompting cheers and handshakes from regular folks who just happened upon the contingent as they were passing in and out of the airport or catching their own flights.
Once the veterans arrived in Baltimore, they were greeted with another boisterous reception. Again, there was cheering, clapping and acknowledgment of those important years of service that these 41 servicemen and one servicewoman made to their country over 60 years ago.
While the Honor Flight is a national organization, retired Providence Fire Chief George Farrell helped organize a local chapter last year. Farrell said he happened to be passing through the Baltimore Airport himself a couple of years ago and saw a large number of people gathered for a send-off to a group of WWII veterans on an Honor Flight who were heading off to see the war memorials.
“I was completely taken off guard and emotionally overwhelmed seeing these elderly men—some coming off the plane in wheelchairs and with oxygen masks—and people were shaking their hands and thanking them for their service,” said Farrell. “I asked what was going on and was told it was an Honor Flight. I realized this was something we should be doing in Rhode Island,” he stated.
When Farrell returned to Rhode Island, he said he broached the subject of starting up an Honors Flight chapter in Rhode Island with the other local fire chiefs who belong to the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Association. The group embraced the idea and set about creating a non-profit foundation that could do fundraising for the trip.
Last November 3, the first Honor Flight took off, with 10 veterans and their guardians. Everyone involved considered that trip to be a great success, and plans were immediately made to expand it.
“The veterans travel free of charge—everything is paid for,” noted Farrell. He said the guardians who volunteer generally pay their own way.
As with last year's trip, Farrell said the recent Honor Flight was also very well received by all who participated. “It was an exciting day. I think this is the most wonderful experience we could hope to provide for our veterans.” He said that among the numerous instances of special treatment that the veterans received, two of the military guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier took time to meet and speak with the veterans about the history and meaning behind the memorial. “That is something that just doesn't happen,” Farrell noted.
Farrell said that one of the biggest contributors to the program is the Ocean State Job Lot corporation, which picked up the tab for the all 42 veterans' flights. He said the hope is that there will be two Honor Flights from Rhode Island annually. Another Honor Flight is currently being planned for this September, he added.
Farrell said the Honor Flight concept was especially meaningful to him because his own father, a World War II veteran who had received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, would have liked to have seen the World War II monument. However, he passed away in 2003.
Farrell noted that due to the advanced age of the World War II veterans, most of whom are in their late 80s or early 90s, special care is taken to ensure that the travel is as safe and comfortable as possible. He said that anyone who volunteers as a guardian is required to attend an hour-long training session. He noted that many of the volunteers are active or retired firefighters who already have medical training, and the March contingent had included three nurses and a physician's assistant. The group also took along a supply of oxygen, a defibrillator, and 42 wheelchairs—one for each veteran, to make their transportation go smoothly.
In addition to Ocean State Job Lot, other local organizations and fire districts contributed to the Honor Flight. Among these was the Lime Rock Fire District, which provided $500 to the cause along with several firefighters to serve as guardians. Lime Rock Fire Chief Frank Sylvester, himself a military veteran, was one, and he chaperoned the oldest veteran on the trip, 93-year-old Frank Brown, of Pawtucket.
Sylvester said that during the trip, he was in awe of how much of the general public went out of their way to thank the veterans for their service. “This was the greatest generation, and so are the people who are so dedicated to honoring our veterans. It was unbelievable the amount of respect that people showed these veterans,” he noted.
Brown's daughter, Karen Cornell, told the Times that her father “had an absolutely amazing time. It was the best time ever.” She also had high praise for George Farrell and all of those involved with the Rhode Island Honor Flight Program. “It was so professionally handled, from beginning to end. We had complete confidence in our family member traveling on that trip.”
Cornell said that Brown had visited Washington, DC “years and years ago” but had not viewed the newer World War II Memorial. “It was wonderful for him to see this and to be honored like that,” she said. “Everything was done so nicely.”
Gordon E. Jackson, of Lincoln, a retired deputy chief of the Lime Rock Fire Department, traveled with his grandson, Pawtucket Firefighter Joseph Nadreu. “I thought it was a great trip,” he said. “Seeing the bagpipers and people from all of the different services saluting me for something I did so long ago. Although it gets a little overwhelming when you're 90 years old.”
Jackson, who served in the U.S. Navy aboard a destroyer, said he spent much of World War II in the Pacific. He added that one of his brothers had been stationed in New Guinea as part of the U.S. Army's Quartermaster Corp and another brother had been in the U.S. Air Force and stationed in England “We represented three of the branches,” Jackson noted.
Of the busy itinerary involved with the Honor Flight, Jackson conceded that it was a long day for those, like himself, firmly along in their golden years. “But, I didn't hear any complaints. Not one,” he added. Everything was great.”
Jackson said he would have liked to have had enough time to visit Washington's Naval Museum, where a plaque had recently been dedicated to his former warship, but said he was glad he able to see the World War II Memorial. “It was the last point in time that we're going to get a chance to see something like that...at least for most of us,” he said.
Armand A. Poulin, who was drafted into the Army at the age of 18, said the Honor Flight was “Excellent...everything about it. And the guardians were all excellent.” Of the grand send-off and welcoming crowds, he admitted, “I was emotionally affected. I had big tears in my eyes because of all the people who came out. It was one of the greatest things that happened in my life.”
Lime Rock Fire Deputy Chief Todd Tucker, who was Poulin's guardian, concurred that both he and the Albion veteran were moved by the outpouring of sentiment expressed by the public. “It was very humbling,” he noted.
Poulin noted that he saw plenty or wartime action right away with the 85th Infantry Division, some 20 miles north of Naples. “I never got wounded. I prayed a lot,” he said. He noted that the first night he was sent out to the front lines was May 11, 1944. “I was scared stiff,” he admitted. “It was just when we were getting ready for the jump off from Rome that all the utility guns opened up, firing a thousand rounds each,” he recalled.
While most of the veterans and even many of the guardians found their energy tested by the hectic schedule, the 88-year-old Poulin boasted that he “wasn't at all tired.” “I get around pretty well,' he said. “I brought along a cane, but mostly to show it off. It came from Switzerland and has all kinds of pictures carved into in. It was a real eye-opener.”