Two weeks ago, I flew to Houston to join a charter flight that carried 111 WWII Vets from IAH to Washington to visit the WWII Memorial on the National Mall. They also went to Arlington National Cemetery and watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. I reported a video story that’s running today (Memorial Day) on TIME.com.
Among the veterans I met were decorated soldiers, bomber pilots, an Army nurse and a Navy WAVE. One soldier, Marco Barelas, was one of Merrill’s Marauders, the long range penetration special forces who fought against Japanese forces in northern Burma. The 86-year-old Barelas told me his unit marched nearly a thousand miles in the Burmese jungles, and he walked the Burma Road for 16 miles barefoot. “My feet were all to pieces and bloody,” he said.
Barelas was lively, using a walker, and made his way around the Memorial and the Korean War memorial and got a front row view of the changing of the guard.
Anne Watt trained as an army nurse in hopes of being stationed near one of her four brothers who were serving in various theaters of battle around the globe. Dreaming of an assignment overseas, she was stationed, instead, in Arkansas, where she trained to attend soldiers in the event of an invasion of Japan. That, thankfully, never happened. The war ended, and all four of her brothers came home safely.
When John Daro was wheeled in by his guardian — son-in-law David Carr — he waved his arms like airplane wings. “Army Air Corps!” he haled as he glided past a row of applauding visitors, standing in honor in the airport concourse to give the vets a proper send off. “Just like the old days,” he said. I knew immediately this was someone I wanted to meet. “I was in a B-29!” he said with an jaunty inflection. He was a farm boy who always wanted to fly, and ultimately landed a spot in the pilot’s seat of bombers in an elite squadron.
Iris and Richard Howes both served in the war, and met two years after in Japan. They married in 1948. Iris signed up for the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in 1942 and served as a communication specialist. Mr. Howes was in the Army Air Corps and survived a crash landing during a paratrooper mission.
After a more-than-full day that began at 4:30 a.m. in Conroe, Texas and ended in the same Target parking lot at nearly 1 a.m. that night, I wasn’t sure who had the greater honor: the vets, or the guardians and observers who were privileged to spend the day with them and help them witness the heroic memorials created in their honor.
Hats off to Montgomery Junior High school, their principal Duane McFadden, and the indefatigable Brenda Beaven, a history teacher who saw a story about the honor flights on TV and was determined to do it for the veterans in her community. She rallied the school and local volunteers to create an amazing event.