It was a concept that started in Springfield, Ohio in 2005 when 12 World War II veterans were taken to Washington, D.C. There is now a coordinated nationwide network that flies World War II, Korea and Vietnam from across the country to Washington. There they visit monuments to those conflicts, remember their service and comrades who did not survive. In this first part of our weeklong series on World War II veterans, WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley looks at the North Country Honor Flight and the veterans it honors.
“When they walk into that memorial and they see that their friend will never be forgotten, That the sacrifice that they paid will always be cherished, always revered, always honored by this nation, they’re taken aback by that.” That is Earl Morse, the founder of Honor Flight, on a website video.
Plattsburgh was the site of an active military installation from the War of 1812 until the Plattsburgh Air Force Base shut down in 1995. One of the largest Army bases in the country — Fort Drum — is on the western edge of the Adirondacks. Veterans from all wars reside, or are interred, across the northern tier of the state.
In 2013, North Country Honor Flight began taking small groups of veterans to Washington four times a year.
It’s 7 a.m. on a recent Saturday and the Old Base rec center is filled with hundreds of well-wishers as veterans and their guardians reminisce and receive their travel orders.
Army veteran Walter Hartl was in the signal corps in Europe and is taking the Honor Flight to Washington. “We went over the briny sea and heard the thump of torpedoes going off or depth bombs, I don’t know which. And it was the roughest, roughest journey you could imagine. The waves were absolutely titanic. That was my first war experience. And one morning I was fast asleep, it was around 4:30, and the CQ – the Charge of Quarters – said ‘You got 10 minutes to get ready’. I said where am I going? No need to know. And we headed for Normandy. You know that was the beginning of the invasion. Now I was a signalman and all of a sudden I found out I had a very, very good assignment.”
(couple speaking in Mohawk language) “He said he wants to go on the airplane first thing in the morning.”
The language is Mohawk and it’s being spoken by Levi Oakes, the last surviving Mohawk codetalker. He and his daughter Diane Swamp traveled with other veterans from the St. Regis Akwasasne Reservation along the St. Lawrence River to Plattsburgh to take the last Honor Flight of 2016.
In May, the 91-year old Oakes received the Congressional Silver Medal for his work in WWII. Ten Native American tribes used their own language to relay messages. The Nazis and Japanese could not break what they thought were coded messages. Oakes served in the South Pacific. “We talked our own language in Mohawk with the other person. But they give us a paper to read on it and you gotta translate it. So that’s what we did. I never even talk about it. I don’t know why.”
Diane: “What they did was they had someone else from home that would talk Mohawk to him and then he would pass the messages.”
Levi: “Yeah that’s what I was doing.”
Diane: “He would have to say Mohawk to the, maybe it was one of his cousins or something. Actually it was one of his cousins. So they would exchange messages and they would tell whatever they had to tell. But he would never say what he had to say because he was always under strict orders.”
Sitting next to Oakes is Navy veteran Richard Edward Loomis. He is still frustrated that he was classified color blind and ended up stateside at the Brooklyn Navy Yard working to decommission ships as they came in after combat. Yet he still had the opportunity to be on the USS Enterprise, just not while it was at sea. “It had been hurt and then they were going to rebuild it. It had been in battle and there was a lot that had to be redone. So you were ripping things out and then you’re putting them back. I was helping rip them out. It was very interesting. I didn’t get into a lot of it. I was only there about three weeks I think. But they were really ripping it apart and putting it back together again.”
92-year-old Paul Jock started his service with infantry training in Alabama before being shipped to Germany a couple weeks before WWII ended. He transferred to the Air Force and stayed three years in Germany including participating in the Berlin Airlift. “They had to repair the whole country. You know everybody was starving and they had no place to live, everything was bombed out. And they lived in anything they could repair. It was quite a mess. And we had to clean up all those places and fix them and do what we could. And you know they were out of everything, out of everything. And I was there and looked at the Jewish people that they had tormented and killed and starved and I see ‘em where they had three decks of people laying on slabs of wood. They just laid them there and let them suffer. Then I saw those places where they were digging and throwing soldiers and the Jewish people in those… It was terrible. It was terrible. So I did what I could do.”
During the fall, Honor Flight the veterans were the guests of honor at the city’s Battle of Plattsburgh fireworks celebration. North Country Honor Flight Executive Secretary Pauline Stone introduced them to the crowd. “Good evening everyone. Before you are some real heroes. You’ve probably heard of the Greatest Generation. They are proudly represented here tonight. It’s because of them that you have the freedoms you enjoy today. Men and women who went through hell to save our country.”
The veterans must be up for an early morning flight to Washington D.C. But first: the traditional ceremony at the rec center before every Honor Flight. Essex County Sheriff Richard Cutting is part of the motorcycle honor guard. “If you look outside and you see the motorcycles lined up, the majority of these motorcycle riders are here to honor veterans. We need to find those WWII veterans. We need to find those Korean veterans. We need to find those as Honor Flight to have them come and sit in these chairs here. What has happened since our last Honor Flight back in June we have lost William Thompson, John F. Kennedy, Norm Dumas, Richard Kimmel, Ralph Jarvis, Ed Sousis, Gordon Hippco, Rudolph Chapola, Bill Shieffer, Gerald Abbott, Donald Compagne, and Gordie Little. You can see that we are losing more and more every day. We need to find these people before we lose them. We need to give them the honors that they so richly deserve.”
After their fallen comrades are honored, the veterans are escorted through a Walk of Honor to an awaiting bus to the airport terminal.
The bus is escorted by law enforcement vehicles, a border patrol helicopter, and hundreds of motorcycles.
Along the route a giant flag has been draped across the road by fire department ladder trucks as personnel stand at attention, saluting those passing.
Motorcyclist Tom Fisher, whose late father was a Korean War veteran, rides escort during each honor flight. He stands among the crowd at the fence watching as the veterans board the plane. “I heard about this through my uncle. He was on one last year and I heard all the motorcycles coming up the road. And I had a motorcycle and I asked them if I could ride with them. And it’s been something that I love to do. It’s an amazing thing that’s probably long overdue for a lot of the veterans and stuff that haven’t had a chance to go to Washington and see the memorials that were built long after they served their country. To see these guys in person, they’re my heroes. I mean just to watch them board the bus brings tears to my eyes. And unfortunately we’re losing veterans everyday. If not for these gentlemen and ladies that have served our country we wouldn’t have any of this.”
As the plane completes its pre-flight, the copilot opens his window and waves an American flag. It then taxies so close to the fence it almost seems that family and friends could touch its wings before heading up the taxiway. As it approaches the runway the veterans are honored again with a water salute arching over the plane.
It’s 10 o’clock at night when the veterans return and there’s another crowd waiting to greet them. Marine Lieutenant Kenneth George, who served in Vietnam, said it was a busy day. “It was great because it was fun to see the people cheering us on and things like that. So I appreciated that way, you know. (What was the highlight for you?) Seeing some of the memorials that was nice. I’d never seen that before. So for us that was the highlight.”
North Country Honor Flight Director Barrie Finnegan is driven to recognize as many veterans as he can because time is of the essence to honor the men and women who served. “We’re down to between 6 and 7-hundred thousand WWII vets left out of the 16 million. So we don’t have a lot of time to do this. The longer we wait the less healthier they are and the less of them there are to go. So we’re really trying to find every one we can to get them on a plane. I think one of my most memorable moments was I was on the bus one day with them. And we came by and all the people are on the side of the road waving flags and yelling and waving and the guy said ‘What’s all this about?’ And the whole generation as a whole is so humble they don’t realize. And I had to tell him that this is all for you. This is all for what you did during the war and we honor and cherish you.”
Every day nearly 640 World War II veterans die.