Lady MacRobert's Reply

Lady MacRobert and her three sons.

Lady MacRobert and her three sons.

Here is a story of fortitude for you!

Upon the death of her three sons who had served in the RAF, Lady Rachel MacRobert sponsored a Stirling Bomber to be built and named "MacRobert's Reply."

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"It is my wish, as a mother, to reply in a way my sons would applaud - attack with great fire power, head on and hard. The amount of £25,000 is to buy a bomber aircraft to continue my sons' work in the most effective way. This expresses my feelings on receiving notice about my sons … Let the bomber serve where there is the most need of her and may luck be with those who fly her. If I had 10 sons, I know they all would have done service for their country."

But the lady's mission did not finish there. She went on to sponsor Four Hawker Hurricanes, three named after each of her sons, and the fourth entitled: “MacRobert’s Salute to Russia – The Lady”

Lady MacRobert is a magnificent example of the indomitable spirit of the British people during World War Two.


Support Operation Meatball

Always Kiss Goodnight: A Story for Valentine's Day

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With Valentine's Day coming up, I thought I'd share a sweet story with you.

The article below was written by the American-Statesman a few years ago about a simply darling couple, the Kanters. When I first read this article, I knew I must make their acquaintance, so I invited them to our first WWII Veterans Dinner in 2014. Very happily for us, they accepted the invitation, and the girls and I immediately fell in love with the both of them. Mr. Kanter was completely charming (and very handsome!) and Mrs. Kanter was fabulously spunky. Walking up to an Army veteran at our dinner she declared, "If you see a good looking man in a black sports coat, watch out. He is Navy all the way." When the veteran made a comment about the Army's superiority, she deftly defended her husband and the Navy. Sadly, Mrs. Kanter passed away not too long after the dinner. To know her was an absolute delight. 

With that brief background, here is the article:

Mr. Kanter at our 2014 Veterans Dinner.


Always Kiss Goodnight

Helen Anders

American-Statesman Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 

It was Halloween night 1944, and a new student at the University of Texas, Irene Wolfson, had a date to a Longhorns football game. Told a blue norther was coming in, but not knowing quite what that was because she’d just arrived from Florida, Irene dressed smartly in a one-button suit with a yellow angora sweater.

“I go out to get in the car,” Irene recalls, “and driving is this sailor with coal-black hair and a fantastic smile.” That, however, was not Irene’s date, although her date was also in the car. The sailor, Marvin Kanter, on shore leave from the Navy, had a date of his own. Still, during the evening when it became clear that Irene had under-dressed for the norther, he lent her his pea coat. The next day, Marvin left to catch a ship out of San Francisco.

“All the way to California, I was picking yellow angora off my pea coat,” he says. His memory of Irene stuck with him just like the angora, and when he was back in Austin — two years later, after World War II had ended — he tracked her down for a date. Then he went home to Missouri and she to Florida, but they corresponded. Irene’s mother saw his picture in her daughter’s room and instantly disapproved.

“He has a weak chin,” she tsked. Undeterred, Irene proposed to Marvin when they got together one weekend in 1947.

“What are your future plans?” Marvin asked Irene, who quickly answered: “I plan to marry you and settle down.” In 1949, they did just that, opting to move to Austin, where Irene quickly landed a job with a fabric store and Marvin worked for a pharmaceuticals wholesaler.

“I don’t think anyone expected the marriage to last,” Irene muses. But here they are, 64 years later. Irene wound up teaching school, then becoming an administrator, serving as assistant principal of Anderson High School for 20 years. Marvin took a job with the Texas Railroad Commission and spent 34 years of weekends officiating at football games, many of them attended by Irene and their daughter, Shelly.

“Remember that time we put hotdog wrappers on our feet to keep warm?” Shelly remembers, and both her parents laugh.

Mr. and Mrs. Kanter at our 2014 Veterans Dinner.

Mr. and Mrs. Kanter at our 2014 Veterans Dinner.

Now retired, Marvin and Irene take a swim in their pool at exactly 4 p.m. every day (unless it’s too cold) and follow that up with a 5 p.m. cocktail hour. They may be out of the business world, but they’re far from idle. They work from time to time as extras in movies shooting in Austin — in fact, they enjoyed a decent amount of screen time behind Sandra Bullock in a restaurant scene in “Miss Congeniality” — and they travel relentlessly, heading out for a tour of interior Alaska just four weeks after Irene had hip surgery. Talking about all this, they grin at each other like newlyweds.

“We have a lot of fun together,” Irene says.

“We laugh a lot, and we try to stay young,” Marvin says. “And whether the day has gone smooth or rough, at the end of the day, we kiss each other.”

“Sometimes it’s hard when you’ve had a fuss,” Irene says, “but we do.”

http://www.statesman.com/lifestyles/always-kiss-good-night/3rPiyfI7ktv4v9tooYr2RN/

For George: Remembering A Great Marine

Many people come into your life. More go out of it. And a few of them touch your life in ways you couldn't have dreamed. George Cattelona is one of the few.

Anyone who ever met Mr. Cattelona knows what a character he was. One of his favorite sayings was, "I always try and give em' hell where ever I go." But for all his joking around, he had the rare and beautiful quality of true kindness and genuine sincerity. Visiting with him at reunions over the last couple of years and getting to know him better each time, whether it was killing a few hours in the hotel lobby waiting for his car to be repaired or galavanting about the MCX at Camp Pendleton, these two qualities of his became apparent and touched our hearts tremendously.

Virginia Beach 5th Marine Division reunion in 2015. George and his war buddy, John Coltrane.


Virginia Beach 5th Marine Division reunion in 2015. George and his war buddy, John Coltrane.

The girls and I fondly called him our "Prospector." He may have been born in the 1920s, but there was an almost intangible aura about him that seemed to come from another time. He saw hard things on Iwo Jima. His before and after portraits taken during his time in the Corps give that away. It was difficult for him to talk about Iwo, nevertheless he did because it was so important for his buddies to be remembered. He was absolutely devoted to their memory.

I know the last few months following his accident were really hard for him. Mom and I were able to visit him in late May, and it broke my heart to see a man who was everything the Marine Corps stood for, everything that is American, noble, brave, and true, suffer so. Just a few months ago it seemed he would go on forever. And now, to hold his beautiful hands, look into his eyes and only see confusion in them; to listen to him talk about the men he served with on Iwo Jima as if they were still there, and to give him answers to his questions that only made him more frustrated. It made me cry. I didn't want to say goodbye and have that be my last memory.

During our last visit, like a break in the clouds on a stormy day as if in answer to my prayer, for a few minutes that old familiar twinkle, (slightly ornery, slightly mischievous), came back into his eyes as he cracked a few jokes that only the George Cattelona I knew could make. He pretended to be annoyed that we were holding up his lunch, but the smile curling up from under his moustache gave him away.

There's so much more about him I've left out. Losing him is hard. Harder than I imagined. In his passing it feels like a world of knowledge, wisdom, love, kindness, and sincerity has passed with him. We'll always love you Mr. C.

Friends We Lost in 2016

We lost many, many friends this year. We honor them and remember them forever. 


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

Reading WWII Weekend

The last few months have hurried along faster than any of us expected, and it is quite hard to believe we are halfway through the month of June. Some of us are still scratching our heads and wondering where March and April went. All that to say, that hopefully in the next few weeks, we can catch up a bit on some of the doings of "Operation Meatball."

Two weekends ago, through a great blessing and provision, we found ourselves in Reading, Pennsylvania, after a rather interesting trek up North (the rains of Texas seemed to be following us the whole way).

Each year the Mid Atlantic Air Museum (MAAM) holds a grand Airshow over the D-Day anniversary. It's called the Reading WWII Weekend. We've been hearing about this great event for several years now, but the timing had just never worked out; however this year it did, and it was fabulous. For three days, the grounds surrounding the MAAM are transformed into the various theatres of operation during the war.

Walking around you can go from fighting forces on the European front to the Marines of the Pacific. Go a little further and you run into the Brits and Russians, while just a brief turn in the road takes you to home-front America with Singers and Entertainers (like Abbot and Costello) in a little cafe, a walk-in home from the 1940s, Red Cross workers, a movie theatre, Candy-shop and more. 

One of the main highlights of the event is the large assortment of guest speakers and veterans of WWII you can come to hear. A Marine Corps veteran talk of his experiences on Iwo Jima, or a 1st Division man about the Beaches of Omaha on D-Day. An Auschwitz survivor, even a former Hitler Youth member. Their stories are remarkable. 

Because it would take a great while to catalogue the whole lovely weekend, below are some of the highlights.


One of the high points of the Reading WWII Weekend was meeting Mr. Sal Castro and his delightful wife (not pictured). Mr. Castro was a combat veteran of the 32nd Infantry Division and recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal for his service in the Civil Air Patrol during the war.


Mr. Sebastian de something-italian-and-very-hard-to-pronounce, an adorable little Italian who didn't walk - he danced everywhere - declared to me, "I'm 93, I still have my hair, and I still have my teeth!" 


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One of the nicest veterans we met was Mr. K., a sailor from the USS John W. Weeks. During one of the musical programs at the event, we were just getting up to escape the rain when he motioned for us to come over. "I have a question," he said. "You look like you are dressed the way they were in the 1940s." "Yes sir!" We told him. "You see," Mr. K. said, "I am a WWII veteran, and I grew up in the 30s and 40s and that is how all the girls dressed then." He then went on to tell us about the clothes and the music of the time, tearing up at the latter. When we asked why the music made him cry, he told us that it was the memories attached to them. Some hard, many wonderful.

The song, "White Cliffs of Dover," was especially close to him and made him tear up because it reminded him of his late wife, a lovely Irish war-bride whose heart he had captured and brought home. "We weren't in love at first," he said about his wife. "We just clicked and got along real well. It was after we were married that the romance came." He told us that he saw her "27 times" during his time in the Navy, and decided to marry her when he was sailing around New Guinea. She agreed and they were happily married nearly 65 years. We eventually had to say goodbye to our lovely new friend, and as we were going he said, "I'm so glad you came over. Because I was sure you girls were dressed like they did (and like my wife did) in 1945, but I had to ask." To see the delight in his face at recalling these old memories really made our day complete, and added a fresh reminder of why we love what we do.


Faith chatting with our a dear friend John McCaskill. Mr. McCaskill is entirely to blame for getting us hooked on Honor Flight, and we couldn't thank him enough for it. 


The whole weekend in Reading was just as lovely as it could be. Though our first, there will be hopefully many more times to come.

Return to the Black Sands of Iwo Jima pt.2

First sight of Iwo Jima

“What does returning to Iwo Jima after 70 years mean to you?” I asked a 90 year old, soft-spoken Marine.  

He started to tell me, then stopped. We were on the top of Mt. Suribachi overlooking the island of Iwo Jima. With his good arm, he had just pointed out to me the location of his landing beach and subsequent movements. At his side hung a limp prosthetic arm, a memento of the 12 days he had spent on the island. 

“Give me a minute.” He said, his voice choking a little. He looked back over the island, trying to get control of the emotion in his throat. After a few moments of silence, he started to speak again, but his voice cracked. “I’m sorry. I can’t tell you. It’s too...” His hand instinctively went to his prosthesis.

“It’s okay.” I told him. Without saying a word, he had expressed everything. 

- - - - - - - 

The morning we departed for the island of Iwo Jima, we left our hotel on Guam at the unrighteous hour of 3 or so o’clock in the morning. Most the folks on the trip (self included) had only enjoyed 2 or 3 hours of sleep, but excitement and anticipation proved to be a good enough antidote. In the airport, we were joined by the rest of the crowd, all in all totaling about 450 people (3 planes' worth).

During the flight, I turned around to introduce myself to the two veterans behind me: Sam Weldon, 4th Division, a real brass-knuckles Marine; and Frank Pontisso, 5th Division, much more soft-spoken than his companion. They both came from way up north, their accents betrayed. For both of them, Iwo was their first and last combat. Mr. Weldon came off the island relatively unscathed, with the exception of almost complete loss of hearing. He ended up as an MP on Guam. Mr. Pontisso was less fortunate. On his 12th day, a mortar blast exploded near him and two of his buddies. All three survived, but his right arm was badly damaged. With it packed on ice, he was shipped off the island. 

“Ladies and Gentlemen, in a few moments we will be approaching the island of Iwo Jima...” It was almost amusing to hear the Captain say this over the loud speaker. The usually dull, “Welcome to your destination,” was changed entirely by those two little words Iwo Jima

The plane circled the island three times before landing, so that all who wanted could cram into a window seat and grab a shot of this historic island. The island was beautiful. Not in the way the Golden Gate Bridge is beautiful to a sailor who has been at sea for many months, or New York Harbor was to the immigrants in the early 1900s. But beautiful in the haunting sense of the stories it holds, the bravery and courage unequaled, and a history that must never be repeated. 

I looked over at Mr. Pontisso in the seat behind me and couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking. The last time he’d seen the island was the day he was hit by a mortar. Diving into a foxhole, a corpsman had given the wounded marine a shot of brandy before he passed out. The next thing he knew, he’d been taken off the island and hospitalized. Everything was going fine in his recovery, until gangrene set in. There was no choice but to amputate the arm. His war was over, and he was sent home with a Purple Heart.

Mr. Pontisso looks out the window as we circle Iwo Jima, moments before landing. 

Mr. Pontisso looks out the window as we circle Iwo Jima, moments before landing. 

Now, 70 year later, he was coming back. I snapped a quick picture. It is strange that a piece of  lava in the middle of the ocean can hold so much significance to us. 

- - - - - - - 

Immediately after debarking, we headed up to Mt. Suribachi. From the top of Suribachi, we could view the entire expanse of the island; an impressive view, but not exactly the same view the flag-raisers had 70 years ago. Then, the surface of Iwo had been bombed to pieces and hardly a lick of foliage was to be seen on the island. Today, it is completely covered in greenery and can almost be considered lush.

Iwo Jima today. Photo Credit: Mark W. Stevens (Iwo Jima Association of America)

This was a bit disconcerting to some of the vets who had been hoping to find familiar landmarks. Now covered up with shrubbery, it was like finding a needle in a haystack to get precise locations. One of them remarked to me, “We should just bomb it again. Then I’d be able to find my way around okay.” 

On top of the mountain, an exciting chaos was ensuing. Veterans and friends crowded around the Marine Monument for a photo, or raised their flag on the pole briefly, all the while dodging news cameras and photographers. I had to gulp and hope it wouldn’t go away too fast. 

Time did seem to halt a few times as I talked to a couple of the veterans coming back for the first time. They spoke slowly, carefully reflecting on their surroundings. One of them said that no matter how much you prepare to revisit the old sites, it still kind of hits you hard. 

With Sgt. Coltrane at the Marine Memorial on Mt. Suribachi

“I’ve been having nightmares for 70 years.” Sgt. J. Coltrane told me while we were sitting atop Suribachi. “I’m hoping that after this, I won’t have them any more.” 

Standing up there, I remembered the story Colonel Bill Henderson had told my dad the first time he went to Iwo Jima in 2005. In his outfit was a young Marine who had earned the name “Buttermilk” due to his youth and inability to order anything stronger at a bar. The Colonel didn’t know him too well, being new to the unit, but he recognized him still. After landing on the first wave,  Henderson (then a Lieutenant), was struggling to get his men together and up the beach.  At one point, he looked over and saw Buttermilk standing in the sand with a dazed face. “Buttermilk!” He shouted out. “Get up and go. Don’t just stand there. Move it!” Knowing they had to keep moving forward quickly, he was surprised that the young Marine just stared blankly at him. Realization hit a moment later. The lower half of Buttermilk’s body had been blown completely off. Colonel Henderson later reflected, “He very slowly toppled over. At moments like that, there was little choice but to move on or die, paralyzed with fear, confusion, and anger.”

- - - - - - - 

The ceremony on Iwo Jima was formal. The representatives from both America and Japan spoke, followed by a wreath laying. Each side paid tribute to the men who died; they spoke of forgiveness and healing, and the unity between our countries. It is always striking to me to see two countries that warred so viciously with each other, make peace, and then for the next dozens of years became strong allies. 

Lt. General Stackpole, Lt. General Snowden, and Lt. General Smith lay the wreaths.

Lt. General Stackpole, Lt. General Snowden, and Lt. General Smith lay the wreaths.

Speaking of forgiveness, we had, with our Military Historical Tours group, a special guest: Mr. Tsuruji Akikusa, a Japanese Naval Radioman. Mr. Akikusa had aspired to be a fighter pilot, but his father, not wanting him to die, had him sent into the Japanese Navy. This would be a safer place for his son. But it wasn’t. Before long, 18 year old Mr. Akikusa ended up on the island of Iwo Jima. Through a translator, he described to us what it was like to watch the first Americans land on the island. In a small bunker near the beach, he saw the landing crafts approach, the marines unload and begin climbing the beach. There was no opposing fire. Quite anxious, he asked the officer next to him, “Why are we not firing?!”  At that moment, the cannons erupted from the hidden bunkers and tore up the first Americans. Mr. Akikusa was relieved, but also horrified. 

A 16 year-old Tsuruji Akikusa

A 16 year-old Tsuruji Akikusa

Throughout the rest of the battle, he remained on the island, but never fired a shot. As the end drew near, many of the Japanese soldiers in his bunker committed suicide. Then it was evident they would soon be overcome. He heard shouts and cries and saw the Japanese officers shooting the soldiers who were crying in fear. Afraid that they would shoot him, he didn’t say anything. Soon, his bunker was hit, knocking him unconscious. A few days, later he woke up in an American hospital tent. He learned that one of the War Dogs had sniffed him out during a patrol. When the Marine accompanying the dog saw that he was still alive, he brought him back for medical attention. Mr. Akikusa was one of only 1,000 Japanese to be taken prisoner on the island of Iwo Jima. Over 22,000 Japanese soldiers had been killed or committed suicide. 

Mr. Akikusa spent the next year as a prisoner of war. Fearing his survival would cause shame for his family (who thought he was killed on the island), he never wrote home to tell them he was alive. It was one of the moral codes of their culture to die an honorable death in battle rather than suffer the disgrace of surviving, or worse -become a prisoner of war (This is one of the reasons the Japanese treated our POWs so poorly; they considered them to be disgraced men for surrendering). Eventually, after the war ended, he decided to go home. He arrived just in time to discover his school was having a funeral service for him and the other boys in his town who died during the war. He went quietly in, removed the picture of himself and sat down to attend the rest of the funeral. His funeral. 

- - - - - - - 

Mr. Akikusa attended the official ceremonies with us -the Americans. I’d seen him earlier in the hotel lobby. He was wearing a hat with GoArmy and USA pins on it. Knowing he was Japanese, but not having met him yet, I wondered how he came to be wearing a hat with American insignia. After hearing him relate his story, I knew. He concluded his comments by saying, “They say I was captured by the Americans. But I don’t like to say that. I wasn’t captured. I was rescued.” 

Tsuruji Akikusa, and General Lawrence Snowden. As Gen. Snowden said, "Once enemies, now friends." Photo Cred: Mark Stevens (IJAA)

Tsuruji Akikusa, and General Lawrence Snowden. As Gen. Snowden said, "Once enemies, now friends." Photo Cred: Mark Stevens (IJAA)

Mr. Akikusa is an example of a man who once was our enemy, but now he is a friend. Some of the veterans on the trip were unsure about meeting someone they would have considered a bitter enemy. But putting aside enmity and deciding to forgive, they were able to shake his hand and welcome him as a friend. In response, Mr. Akikusa appreciates and respects our country for “rescuing” him. 

The polaroid instant from our meeting. 

After the ceremony, I saw that he was sitting alone with his translator. Walking up to him, I took his hand and told him how grateful I was for the peace between our countries and thanked him for coming with us - his former enemies - back to Iwo Jima to remember our fallen soldiers. He smiled so kindly and replied similarly. Pulling out my Polaroid, I asked to take a picture with him. If you remember Polaroids, they print instantly, so a moment later, I gave him one of the prints. He smiled when he saw the photo, and his translator explained to him that it was a gift from me for him. With almost tears in his eyes and holding tight to the picture, he thanked me. 

It was brief, but the interchange meant a great deal to me. My great-great uncle died in a POW camp in the Philippines. His sister was very bitter against the Japanese for the rest of her life. I have known many people who experienced great hardships at the hands of the Japanese in WWII. But at the end of the day, forgiveness is one of the greatest acts a man can offer another.  “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger... be put away from you...forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.” Ephesians 4:31-32 

- - - - - - - 

Following the ceremony, several of us piled into the back of a jeep and headed down to the beach. Getting to the sand was entirely different from anything I had imagined. You read about the difficulty the Marines had climbing the sandy embankments: move forward three feet, sink backwards and in two. It was impossible to dig foxholes for protection because of the texture of the gravelly sand which caved in and cut up the skin. It was all this and more.

Jim Skinner USMC on the beach where he landed in 1945

My cowboy boots sank up to the top and sand poured in. Walking in them was like wearing moon shoes as I tried to walk. Because of time constraints, we didn’t go too far out onto the beach, but I heard later that some of the folks tried “storming the beaches” again, and found the task of scaling the inclines tremendous. (Side note: up to 10 months later, I was still finding sand from Iwo Jima in my boots, despite cleaning them and wearing them regularly)

I mentioned that the sand was rough enough to cut skin. Hard to believe, but true. Coming up from the beach, I tripped and cut my knee. The cut was small, but 13 months later, I still have the scars from it. With such a small incident leaving such a permanent reminder, I couldn’t help but think about the poor fellows who crashed into the sand for protection or fell wounded. I’ve been calling it sand, but really it is volcanic ash; the same hard, rough, gravelly volcanic ash that greeted the Marines on Iwo 71 years ago. 

I'm here with my friend, Mr. G. and his granddaughter just after we've come off the beach. 

With evening coming, we headed back to the airstrip to fly back to Guam. We boarded our plane all in tact, carrying several additional pounds of black Iwo Jima sand. This sand was so popular that for a few minutes there was question if some poor soul would have to dump their portion to lighten the load of the plane. There were no volunteers and in the end everything was fine. Our flight back was uneventful (though two of the other planes ended up being grounded for a couple of hours before returning... Another story), and we chatted with the veterans and folks on the plane. Our trip was coming to a close. 

Mr. C. Burney signs my LIFE magazine. The cover depicts a blockhouse being blown up on Iwo Jima.

The next day was the last day of the tour, finishing up with the closing banquet at the Pacific War Museum, a fabulous museum in Guam that boasts excellent artifacts and tremendous military equipment (jeeps, trucks, guns) scattered around the grounds. Nothing like enjoying your dinner at the base of a WWII anti-aircraft gun. 


This may seem like the longest article I’ve ever written. Probably is. Unfortunately, as long as it is (and if you have persevered through it thus far, bravo and thank you), only highlights were mentioned. So much happened in such a short space of time that it is hard to put it all down and get it out the door. But for now, here are a few lessons I learned from Iwo Jima. 

There is no underestimating the power of forgiveness:

On this trip, I met veterans who had carried great animosity and hatred toward the Japanese for the past 70 years. Understanding that what the Marines on Iwo Jima experienced is beyond our comprehension, it is still hard to see men in their 90s continue to carry bitterness against their enemy when their time left on earth is so short, because bitterness eats at the soul like nothing else. But, even the most angry man can overcome and forgive. I saw that happen. 

The Brotherhood of the Marines:

It is rare you find a bonded brotherhood like the Marines. What makes a 90+ year old man make an incredibly arduous trip across the world to a barren and desolate island? Especially one that holds only the most painful of memories? Because he feels it is his duty to go back and pay his last respects to the comrades and friends he lost. Mr. Pontisso said about his wounds, “I don’t deserve the Purple Heart, it’s the ones who never made it back that do.”

He may have lost his arm 71 years ago, but to him, he came out with his life when so many others didn’t. He went back because it was important to him that he remember them and that others remember. The strength of the brotherhood was so strong that he and others were willing to put aside the personal pain of the memories and make one last return. One last Reunion of Honor. 

We must never forget:

In an old war movie from the 1940s, White Cliffs of Dover,  there is a scene at the end which always brings tears to my eyes. The young man, John, has been mortally wounded fighting in France during WWII. Lying in a hospital in England, he tells his mother about a conversation he had with another soldier. The interchange between the mother and her dying son pretty much sums up why we must never forget.

"That chap, the American, he said he'd really start to fight the day war ended: for a good peace, a peace that would stick. He didn't know he was going to die, you see. He said that God would never forgive us, either England or America, if we break the faith with our dead again. Write his mother a nice letter. Tell her that…,oh well, you'll think of something....

A few moments later a parade comes by, and his mother looks out the window.

How well they march, John... There is a look of greatness about them. All the strong young boys. Beautiful and proud with dreams. Just like you, John. They'll help bring peace again. And as your friend said, "A peace that will stick." …. You know, John, we must never forget what that American boy said to you. God will never forgive us if we break faith with our dead again.” 

The memory of the boys who died on Iwo Jima, where “uncommon valor was a common virtue,” mustn’t be forgotten. Neither should the boys of Peleliu, Tarawa, Wake Island, Guadalcanal, Monte Cassino, El Alamein, Normandy, the Hurtgen forest, the Battle of the Bulge... None of them. If we forget, what was the point of their sacrifice? 

I will never forget this trip to Iwo Jima. And I will make sure no one around me ever forgets either. If we are a grateful people, we will not forget the sacrifices of the men who died for our country. In Ernie Pyle’s book, Brave Men, he wrote, “I don’t believe one of us was afraid of the physical part of dying. That isn’t the way it is. The emotion is rather one of almost desperate reluctance to give up the future.” 

So, thank you to all the young men who gave up their futures. The men who will be forever young in our memories. We may live to be 95, but they will always be 19 years old. God forbid that we ever break faith with them and, in our selfishness, forget the reasons we still live in a free country.


Return to the Black Sands of Iwo Jima pt. 1

One year ago today, I stepped onto the runway on Iwo Jima Island for the first time. It was a surreal moment for me. 11 years before, I had first really learned about this terrible battle and it impacted me tremendously. A little later, when my brothers (then 10 & 12) returned from going to Iwo Jima with my Dad for the 60th, I told myself I would visit the island some day. Now, at 18 years old, it was actually happening. And the experience was unlike any I've ever had. 

Now, if you've read any of the previous things I've written about Iwo Jima, you'll know the story and it's characters mean an awful lot to me. This time, however, I'm going to tell you a little about when this dream of an 8-year old girl finally came true, and I made the journey to an island of bravery, courage, and sacrifice, called Iwo Jima. 

The whole experience of getting to Iwo Jima is a story in itself. Preparations, passport anxieties (doesn't that always happen?!), surprise blessings, surprise complications. But in the end, it all worked out, and on March 16, 2015 after a fabulous send-off, we flew out of LAX airport with nearly 30 Iwo Jima veterans and an enormous amount of family of veterans, friends, relatives, and the like; all going to pay respect and remember.  

Airport buddies! Both 3rd Marine Division guys.

Our flight was made up into two 7+ hour flights. Despite the great length of the travel time, it ended up becoming one of the highlights of the trip.  On the first flight from LAX to Honolulu, I had the great pleasure of sitting with a wonderful Vietnam vet who has been traveling to Iwo Jima for the last 15 years. For 7-hours straight, we talked and talked, covering almost as many miles as our plane.

The next flight from Honolulu to Guam, I spent standing in the back of the plane chatting with the veterans and others who congregated there, or walking up and down the aisles meeting the other members of our tour. Carrying an April edition of the 1945 LIFE Magazine featuring Iwo Jima was a great conversation opener for the vets. They thumbed through the pages, telling me various facts about the pictures and articles in it. The 7 hours flew by as everyone got to know each other in this wonderfully relaxed way; and some pretty remarkable stories were swapped before the "fasten seatbelt" sign came on for landing. 

Hafa Adai! The traditional Chamorro (Guam) welcome

We arrived in Guam sometime pretty late on the 17th. Of course our hours were all mixed up since we had passed the international dateline and were now 15 hours ahead of the rest of America. Tired as we were, the entire group was welcomed to the hotel with a delightful reception. 

The next few days were spent traveling to various historical spots on the Island of Guam. Among our group we had many veterans who took part in the fighting for Guam in 1944. Several had been back over the years, but for those coming back for the first time, it was a stirring experience.

One of those to be making a first return trip was the last Iwo Jima Medal of Honor recipient Hershel W. Williams. In previous years, he had refused to return to these battlefields as the memories were too painful, but as the 70th anniversary approached, he decided that it was time. Like the other veterans returning for the first time, there were many emotions and memories that came back to Mr. Williams.

Hershel W. Williams MOH with his great-grandson on Iwo Jima

One afternoon we had made the trip up to Nimitz Hill and the Admiral's home there. After some commentary and talks outside, everyone went in to the Admiral's house for refreshments, and I found myself with Mr. Williams, his friend, an entirely empty portico, and a spectacular view of nearly all of Guam.

After a few moments of silence, Mr. Williams began to talk about his first experience of combat on Guam. It was more stream of consciousness spoken aloud than an intentional conversation with either me or his friend. He told us of those first nights in combat when the slightest noise made your hair stand on end. The expectation of any moment hearing the blood curdling, "Banzai!" charge and the suicide attacks that immediately followed. When they finally did come, it was when least expected. Charging at you in the dark they screamed, "Die Marine! Die Marine!" Jumping into the foxholes they fought a fierce hand to hand combat. A comrade fell or an enemy was killed. I hardly breathed for fear of breaking his stream of thought. These were memories that had remained on a dusty shelf for 70 years, but now, looking over the very landing beaches and locations where he had fought and distinguished himself, they came flooding back. His reverie ended, but the memory of this moment will stick with me. 

Jim Skinner, USMC 

Another morning on Guam, one of the veterans, Jim Skinner, came up to me with a book of photos from his time in the Marine Corps. He had been telling me about it over the last few days, and I was quite eager to see it. For probably half an hour, we looked through the book, and he told me about each picture. They were all great. Pictures of his girlfriends, Marine Corps buddies, training, family, and all the general photos you would find in an old military photo book. But there were two that stuck out to me the most. Turning the page he said, "This is a picture taken right before I killed my first Jap... and this picture is right after. You can see there he is in the corner of the picture." He didn't take glory in these two pictures as if they were trophies of war, but saw them as they were, a photographic documentation of one of the most life-changing moments in the career of a combat soldier: the first time he kills. Mr. Skinner is another story in itself. A story of bitterness and redemption. He passed away two months after our trip to Iwo Jima. 

Lt. General Snowden with Naval radioman Tsuruji Akikusa 

I would be greatly remiss if I did not mention Lt. Gen. Snowden, the real driving force behind the return trips to Iwo Jima. General Snowden, an Iwo Jima veteran himself, through his gracious relationships with the Japanese government over the years, made it possible for American veterans, families, and friends to travel to Iwo Jima to pay respects and remember. A remarkable man with a very commanding presence, he talked to the entire group before we flew to Iwo, strictly admonishing them as to how our behavior and attitude should be on the island, as it was entirely a gift given to us by the Japanese to make this trip.

The day before we flew to Iwo, to better prepare everyone, Military Historical Tours (the groups which makes these trips to Iwo Jima every year) hosted a symposium on the battle of Iwo Jima. By then, more attendees and veterans had trickled in, and we had quite a crowd. The symposium was most excellent and couldn't have been more informative. During the afternoon, I listened in on some of the veterans' interviews that were taking place in the hotel. This was uniquely special because the the vets being interviewed were about to make their first trip back. On the edge with excitement and apprehension, they talked freely about their experiences during the war, their reasons for going back, and their fears and hopes of what the morrow would bring. Healing? Closure? 

Frank Buckles: America's Last Doughboy


Near the end of January, 2011, I was sitting in one of my Dad's annual business and planning meetings. It had been an interesting but long day. To pass the last hour or so, I decided to read some of the headlines in the news. One of them stuck out particularly to me. I read that America's last WWI doughboy was about to turn 110. His name was Frank Buckles. Wow. How incredible. Just putting aside the shear remarkable health he was in at 110, he was also a veteran of the Great War. The so called "War to End All Wars." Right then and there I decided to meet him. I had to. 

The next few weeks I researched him, his life, his military career, etc. I also prepared a letter to send to him, asking for permission to visit. 

Dear Mr. Buckles,

My name is Liberty Phillips. I am 14 years old... I live in San Antonio, Texas with my seven brothers and sisters. Joshua, Justice, Jubilee, Faith, Honor, Providence, and Virginia Hope. All of my life, my father and mother have brought me and my siblings up on a great love for history and its impact on the modern culture around us. 

(I talked about the history documentaries my dad had made on WWII and how that had influenced me to learn more.) 

...My father has often impressed upon us how little time on earth we have, and that every year more veterans from past wars die. Understanding this, when I read that it was your 110th birthday, I was reminded that when my father and brothers were on Iwo Jima, they met a WWII vet named Marvin Perrett who was a Coastie during the war. They got to know each other pretty well, and when visiting the WWII Museum in New Orleans a year ago, we looked for Marvin Perrett only to find he had died shortly before. This was a reminder for me of how fleeting life is, and since we are going to Normandy in June, I thought this would be a prime time. Maybe if this worked out, I could film you giving a message from a WWI vet to the WWII vets that my dad could show in Normandy. 

I would forever be in your gratitude if you would allow my brother and me to do this. I have met many WWII veterans, and have been so blessed by it, and would be exceedingly blessed to meet you, the last WWI veteran, before time runs out.... Forever in your gratitude for what you did for our country, Liberty Phillips

Well, to my great sadness, time did run out before there was an opportunity to meet him. On February 27, 2011, right as I was about to send my letter, Corporal Frank Buckles passed away. 

My dad later wrote about it: 

Several months ago, I discovered that my dear daughter Liberty had been secretly working with her mother on a surprise for me. Knowing her father’s passion for history and desire to cultivate a culture of honor, Liberty’s hope was to meet Frank Buckles, World War I’s last living American doughboy, to interview him, and to share his story with others.

Liberty watched me make The League of Grateful Sons, and she has stood beside me for ten years as I worked with the Faith of Our Fathers Project. She understands that the mission of this effort is to demonstrate our commitment to the Fifth Commandment in the context of showing honor to the heroic fathers of the World War II generation. Liberty has taken this vision into her heart, and she hoped to reach back one generation further and meet World War I’s last remaining U.S. veteran.

So, with the encouragement of her mother, Liberty spent weeks researching the story of Mr. Buckles. She then came to me with her surprise project of honor and asked if she could complete the mission by visiting this unusual man who was such an important link to our nation’s providential past. How encouraged I was! I gave Liberty my blessing, and she prepared to make the trip with her mother to see Mr. Buckles. But just days later, he died. My dear daughter was never able to complete her mission of honor. That broke my heart. It saddened me that she was never able to meet this veteran and to speak to him about the Lord Jesus Christ. We missed our window of opportunity with Mr. Buckles. We waited too long. . .

A few months later, when our family was preparing for our first trip to Normandy for the 67th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, I read another article in the news and sent it with this note to my dad:

Dear Dad,
It turns out I missed out on more than just meeting and interviewing Frank Buckles. Look what just came in: "
Veteran Claude Choules's death breaks last link to World War I: ...The Australian Defence Force said Mr. Choules became the last surviving WWI serviceman following the death earlier this year of American Frank Buckles."

It means even more to me now, Dad, that we are taking advantage of this opportunity to honor the WWII vets in Normandy in a few weeks. Thank you for having this vision and giving us this opportunity.  On a side note, Claude Choule was 14 when he joined and of course, as you know, I'm 14 right now. It just makes me think about life a little differently.

February 27, 2016 was the 5 year anniversary of the passing of Corporal Frank Buckles, America's last doughboy, and the veteran I came so close to meeting. A lot has happened in the last five years, but my family's drive to honor the men who served our country so well has only become more serious as time goes on and the urgency increases. You could say that the passing of Frank Buckles was my first real awakening to the brevity of life we have with our dear veterans. Though I'd met many veterans before, I'd never experienced the impermanence so personally. 

Though I missed a rare opportunity, I think that the passing of Frank Buckles prepared me and taught me to better appreciate the events we experienced that summer as we traveled with several dear WWII veterans who willingly shared stories and tears as they traveled back to their battlegrounds for the first time in 67 years. And for everything else since then.


Stationed in Texas: Jake Kesatie

In 2014 at the Conneaut D-Day, we met the lovely Mr. Jake Kesiatie, an Army Staff Sergeant who served at the San Marcos Military Hospital in Texas during the war. A first generation American, Mr. K was born in 1918 just as the war was wrapping up. “When I was born they had to end the war... But then they had to start a war for me”.

Near the hospital where he was stationed in San Marcos during the war, was an Army Air Corps training base. One day two trainer planes, with five occupants each, had a head-on crash. Nobody survived, and he was detailed with others to clean up the mess. "There weren’t any bodies, just pieces here and there -arms, legs..." He had to fill ten bags with pieces of the remains of the trainees bodies. It was a terrible memory that made him shudder as he told it to us.

Several times throughout the war Mr K. tried to get shipped to overseas service, but they told him his help at the hospital was too valuable. And it must have been because he spent four years stationed in Texas. He was happy to hear we were from Texas because, besides the war going on, he had happy memories of Texas and the Bluebonnets, and of course the people. Mr. Kesatie may never have seen combat, but his role back home was vital. And for that we are very grateful to him.

An Afternoon with Porter and Porter

This is the dashing Mr. Carl Porter. I first met him a few months ago when the 508th PIR Reunion was held in San Antonio.

Though Mr. Porter was a Normandy D-Day veteran, had a dramatic experience surrounding his capture and escape from the Germans, received the Purple Heart for attempting to disarm a "jerry-rigged piece of enemy ordinance," and many other paratrooper-esque events which happened to him in WWII, in retrospect I realized that little of our conversations at the reunion surrounded his war experiences. Instead, we talked about the beautiful 67-year marriage he had with his wife "Marly," their life together in Alaska, -and one of my favorite musical artists (and his "namesake" as we joked), Cole Porter.

Walking back to the hotel the last afternoon, we threw around our favorite Porter songs: Begin the Beguine, Rosalie, Night and Day, being just a few. His favorite though was, "I get a kick out of you." Upon telling me this, he proceeded to sing a few lines -quite nicely indeed. Now, as a rule, I NEVER sing. Never. But this afternoon it was too much, and I joined in. How often does one get to sing a favorite song, with a charming 94-year old paratrooper, on a lovely day by the Riverwalk in San Antonio? Next time we'll probably manage to talk more about serious stuff. Mr. Porter was greatly affected by the war, and did tell us many poignant and beautiful stories. But this once, our delightful little conversations about "Cousin Cole," will stand as one of my favorite memories. - See more at: http://iconosquare.com/viewer.php#/myPhotos/list

"The Three Musketeers," "Squadron 95," and their grand little adventure in D.C., part 2

Liberty and Mr. Virden at the World War Two Memorial

Liberty and Mr. Virden at the World War Two Memorial

continued...

Our first stop: The World War Two Memorial. Though the Korean War Memorial gave it a close run for it’s money, the WWII Memorial will always be my favorite memorial because of it’s history, the significance, and the memories which we have there. Mr. Virden and Mr. Covill had never visited it before, and I think they enjoyed every minute of it, despite the fiercely cold blasts of wind that seemed to appear just for us.

IMG_1235.jpg

We arrived early enough that morning to escape some of the crowds, but not before a school field trip surrounded some of our fellas, shaking hands, taking pictures, and thanking them. Jubilee and I took Mr. Covill to some of the places on the walls where it marked the locations he had served, the main one being Tinian Island. Though little known today, Tinian Island holds a significant part in WWII that changed the entire course of history. Mr. Covill, after gallivanting all over the world as an electrical engineer for the Air Force, would end up spending one year on Tinian, during which the war came to an end. 

Mr. Covill pointing to Tinian Island, where he was stationed for 1 year during the war. 

Liberty with Mr. Jeff Miller, cofounder of the Honor Flight program

Liberty with Mr. Jeff Miller, cofounder of the Honor Flight program

When the Enola Gay was on Tinian to be loaded with her precious cargo, Little Boy, the first Atomic bomb, he said, “I didn’t help load it, but I watched it and they had to open both bombay doors it was so large.” He laughed when I asked him if it was hard to sleep knowing such a bomb was just next door. “Of course not because we had no idea what it was!” But I bet it made the hair stand up on his neck when he learned about it afterwords. 

While we were at the memorial, Mr. Jeff Miller, the cofounder of the Honor Flight program came out and spoke with our veterans. It was a beautiful thing to see him talking with the vets. Over the years since Honor Flight first came about in 2004, Mr. Miller has seen his vision grow as thousands and thousands of WWII Veterans have taken trips to the WWII Memorial, making dreams come true and showing honor to a generation of men set apart from all others. It meant a lot to all of the veterans that he came out to speak with them personally, and many were in tears as they thanked him for his vision to see our veterans honored. 

It should be noted that one of the mottos of the trip was, “If you aren’t on the bus on time, you might find yourself on a bus with hoards of teenagers and school kids.” So after our allotted time, we hustled to the bus to head to the next stop: the Vietnam and Korean War memorials. These are stories in themselves. But since I am trying to stick to Mr. Covill and Mr. Virden right now, we’ll have to come back later. 

The Air Force Memorial was definitely one of the most memorable parts of the trip. We’d never been before, and though it is a magnificent piece of architecture, what made it so special was that it was dedicated to men like Mr. Virden and Mr. Covill, our flyboys. 

Liberty and Mr. Virden at the Air Force Memorial

Liberty and Mr. Virden at the Air Force Memorial

Wheelchairs were pretty much required considering the length of the day, so to keep Mr. Virden and Mr. Covill on their toes, every once in a while we’d swap out “wheelchair duty” and see how long it would take for them to notice. I took Mr. Virden and pushed him around, admiring the height of the memorial, chatting here and there about the Air Force, etc.

Mr. Virden at the Air Force Memorial

Mr. Virden at the Air Force Memorial

Up to this point, when we had asked Mr. Virden where he had served during the war, he was quite insistent that he'd stayed stateside flying transports. As the day went on, we managed to pull a little more out of him, learning that he had indeed flown transports, not just stateside, but to the Pacific regions too. This was something. What did he carry? We had to ask, of course. The answer: everything. Paratroopers on their training jumps, equipment, cannons, even live monkeys. After the war he stayed in for a total of 21 years, making a career of it.

As I pushed his wheelchair, he asked to get a closer look at one of the memorial walls. As he read it -a list of Air Force Combat and Expeditionary Operations during the Korean war- he bit his lip and said, "I flew those three up there." It was obvious there was more to it than just flying, so I asked him what he was transporting. "Supplies and ammunition in... and severely wounded out..." I learned then that every single day from June 1950 to January 1951, Mr. Virden would make the trip from Japan to Korea. Supplies in, wounded out. Every. Single. Day.

Mr. Covill at the Air Force Memorial

Mr. Covill at the Air Force Memorial

Mr. Virden never got near enough to the combat to experience it, though the sounds of battle were loud and clear, but he saw plenty of it in the faces and damaged bodies of the American boys he carried out. An almost never ending number that must have seemed hopeless at times because he never knew how many of them, some too young to shave, would survive. Though this conversation at the Air Force Memorial was in reality only a moment, it drove deeper the somber reality that war is a terrible, terrible thing, and you don't always have to be in the middle of the action to get a front row seat to its horror. 

Following the Air Force Memorial, we stopped briefly at the Iwo Jima Memorial - no doubt, one of the most beautiful monuments in D.C., a masterpiece of work and an unceasing reminder of American freedom.

The climax of the Honor Flight for most of the veterans was the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown, Arlington

Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown, Arlington

This has been often talked and written about, and most people make a point to visit it, so I won’t go into the details here. Suffice it to say, it is a remarkable and moving event to watch, only made more so by the fact that we were surrounded by veterans, not just of our Honor Flight, but two other Honor Flights, equaling nearly 200 veterans. Just beautiful!

The last stop was a new memorial, the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial. This meant a lot to some of the fellows who have been carrying their injuries, internally and externally, for their entire life. Speaking to one of the veterans at this memorial, we learned that his son was the first U.S. casualty in Afghanistan. He was coming on this honor flight, not just for himself, but in memory of his beloved son. 

Mr. Virden and Mr. Covill at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial

Mr. Virden and Mr. Covill at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial

But as all good things, even the best, must come to an end...or at least take a pause, our wonderful trip was drawing to a close. After a delightful tour of D.C. (in which -as Mr. Virden pointed out- we must have passed the Pentagon a dozen times), we traveled back to the airport for our return journey.

Though ready to get home, I think we were all a bit somber at the thought of leaving our new dear friends. At the beginning of this brief trip to D.C., we were all strangers, gathered together from various parts of Austin and the surrounding cities. But by the time we arrived home (as cliche as it sounds), it truly felt like we were all family -the entire group. 

Dinner, a water cannon salute, the delightful plane ride home chatting with a few of the veterans about our favorite radio shows from the 40s and 50s, another water cannon salute in Austin, and then the de-boarding - We were almost home, but not yet. There was one more surprise waiting for the veterans of Austin Honor Flight #30. After everyone was off the plane, we lined up again and proceeded out of the terminal (by now pretty empty because of the hour). Waiting at the end of the terminal, by the front doors, was a crowd of family and friends ready to welcome these heroes home. Upon seeing the crowd a split second before they all bellowed out "Welcome Home," two or three of the Vietnam veterans walking behind us declared, "Oh no! Not again!" But their grinning faces said otherwise. 

"Squadron 95." A little tired and bleary-eyed, but very happy. Our last photo together before saying goodbye.

Whoever said, “It takes an army to move an army,” was not exaggerating. The team from Austin Honor Flight (as always), gave a magnificent weekend to the veterans of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. The work they put into every detail was tremendous, but worth every bit to see the faces of the men they were honoring. 

 It was a long-time dream come true for Jubilee, Faith, and me to be Honor Flight Guardians, and we are so grateful for the opportunity that Austin Honor Flight gave us to participate in this special event. As we have said a hundred times (and will say another hundred), the experience of escorting these dear veterans to their memorials, and for the first time, is truly unlike any other. The friendships we made will hopefully continue on past the Honor Flight, and the memories will last forever. One warning however: Once you've got the Honor Flight bug, it is impossible to get out of your system. 

Thus ends the story of "The Three Musketeers, Squadron 95, and their grand little adventure in D.C."

Post script: The name the, "Three Musketeers" came from Mr. Virden. Despite growing up in a family with six sisters, we quite dumbfounded him at times by our antics, thus he bequeathed us this charming name. 

"The Three Musketeers," "Squadron 95," and their grand little adventure in D.C., part 1

The last few months we've been a bit thin on the blogging part of Operation Meatball, mainly due to an increased busyness with work and life; so for anyone who has stuck around this long, we're going to try and catch you up on a few of the things OM has been doing this fall. To start off, one of the highest points of the year was our first Honor Flight as guardians. 

Now, if you’re not already familiar with Honor Flight, you should definitely google it, or go back and read some of the previous things we’ve written on it, because the Honor Flight program is one of our favorite organizations out there. Seriously, it is top of the list. Over the last year and a half we have had the privilege of spending time at the WWII Memorial to greet especially large numbers of Honor Flights and this is an experience like none other.

But to date, none of us had yet had the opportunity to go as guardians with an Honor Flight, which we knew would be the creme de la creme. Then, through a remarkable providence (and quite out of the blue), the opportunity arose for Jubilee, Faith, and me to became official Honor Flight Guardians with Austin Honor Flight. We were given the date and told that the three of us were to be assigned to two WWII veterans, both 95 years of age. Well, you can imagine the excitement and anticipation this gave us. By the time we arrived at the airport on the travel day, we were quite busting at the seams.

(l-r) Faith, Mr.Covill (95), Liberty, Mr. Virden (95), and Jubilee. All set and ready to go!

(l-r) Faith, Mr.Covill (95), Liberty, Mr. Virden (95), and Jubilee. All set and ready to go!

When we thought we could hardly wait any longer, our veterans arrived and we were introduced to our two “dates” for the weekend: Mr. Virden and Mr. Covill. With some time to kill before boarding, we pummeled our new friends with five thousand questions. We learned quickly that they were both Air Force veterans, one an electrical engineer, the other a pilot. Well, with such similarities (not to mention years) Jube, Faith, and I immediately determined that we would have to adopt a nickname for our delightful little party of Texans. This would be forthcoming, but it was time to head out.

For the last flight of the season, Austin Honor Flight took a group of about 37 veterans: 7 WWII, 6 Korean War, and 24 Vietnam veterans. Added to that were the numerous guardians and staff of Austin Honor Flight, making quite a nice size group of wonderful individuals. 

Jubilee and Mr. Covill

One of the best parts about Honor Flight is the great lengths they go to “showing honor to whom honor is due.” Many of the veterans (WWII, Korean, and Vietnam alike), who traveled with us had never been properly thanked or shown the appreciation due them for the services they gave to their country. Because of this there were many scars that, though somewhat healed over time, still occasionally flared up and caused sores; whether it was guilt about comrades who never made it home for the WWII vets, horrible memories of the fierce fighting in Korea for an unacknowledged war, or bitterness felt by the Vietnam vets for the shameful way they were treated after returning home from a war that they didn’t fight of their own volition. However, this was just about to change, and boy did they have a surprise in for them!

As we made our way past security, we all lined up to head to the departure gate. Suddenly, the magnificent drones of the bagpipes announced to everyone, “let the party begin.” (p.s. for those who don’t love the bagpipes, I’m afraid you are missing out on a bit of heaven). Now, if you have ever had to walk from one end of an airport terminal to the other, believe me it is a long and tedious walk. But this day it wasn’t; for crowding every single inch of the terminal were hundreds and hundreds (maybe even a thousand) of clapping, cheering, crying, hurrahing, and more clapping people. Literally, not a single person was left out. The love shown to the veterans was unequaled.

When we got to the gate, there were a few more Honor Flight ceremonial formalities to go through, including the singing of the National Anthem. If there was anyone who made it through the parade of honor without shedding a tear -no longer. It would be safe to say that there was hardly a dry eye in our entire group of veterans. How can you resist a tear or two when you are surrounded by brothers in arms who are all devoted to their country, all singing her anthem so gloriously and with such passion! 

One of the Vietnam veterans later told me that the parade through the Austin Airport terminal was the highlight of the trip. Why? Because the physical and verbal abuses he had received from his fellow Americans after returning home from Vietnam were such that he wanted nothing to do with most people. In the last few years, when our soldiers returned from the Eastern fighting, he felt bitter and frustrated by the way they were received. It did not seem fair that they were welcomed home as heroes, and he still had to carry the shame of his war in Vietnam. But that was now changed. Walking down the terminal that day, he was greeted with probably the greatest expression of love and appreciation he had ever received, and it was from the people in his own hometown. The healing process had begun. 

Faith and Mr. Virden shortly before we departed the Austin Bergstrom International Airport

Faith and Mr. Virden shortly before we departed the Austin Bergstrom International Airport

If I were to go into every story from the Honor Flight, every person we met and talked with, it would take forever for me to write it up, and for you to read it. But hopefully, over time, I want to write up the stories in smaller, more chewable parts. Stories like, “The Granger Boys,” as we called them: a set of five friends from Vietnam who grew up together, served together, and would not go on the Honor Flight unless they could go together. Then stories like a sniper from the Battle of the Bulge, a special Korean War veteran, and oh, about 6 dozen more stories. 

Jubilee and Mr. Covill, about to board the Southwest Airlines flight. 

On arriving in D.C., the Honor Flight was greeted by more crowds and crowds of cheering people. Our veterans somehow managed to survive this, and as we gathered on the bus to go to the hotel, we were indeed a very merry group. Mr. Covill turned to me and said with great boyishness, “I’m so excited!” 

Liberty, Mr. Covill, and Jubilee

Dinner at the hotel was a great experience. The veterans were invited to stand up and share a story with us if they wished. Some did and some DID. I think excitement must loosen the tongue. There were more than a few moments of hilarity, but also a few near-tear jerker moments. One of the veterans had only shortly before learned that a close friend from the war in Vietnam, whom he had not seen in 40 years, was traveling on the same trip! Coincidences don’t happen, and the joy at this long lost friendship now found was very exciting to see.  

As the evening came to a close, our two dear veterans were in high spirits with great anticipation for the following day's events, but ready for a bit of rest (and so were we!).

Liberty, Mr. Virden, and Faith. TOO early in the morning! 

Liberty, Mr. Virden, and Faith. TOO early in the morning! 

In the morning, at breakfast (an early breakfast! This was on military time!), we announced to Mr. Virden and Mr. Covill that we had decided on a name for our little group. Considering their Air Force background, similar ages, and the size of our group, we had agreed that there was no better name than “Squadron 95.” Neither of them seemed to mind, so it stuck. For the rest of the trip whenever we had to go anywhere it was, “Let’s go, Squadron 95.” 

Read Part 2 here: The Three Musketeers," "Squadron 95," and their grand little adventure in D.C., part 2

Singing for a Veteran

One of my favorite parts of meeting and talking with veterans of the Second World War is hearing my sister Faith sing to them and watching their responses. Some sit thoughtfully, others tear up, but the best is when they sing with her. Recently, while we were in Conneaut, Ohio, for the D-Day Reenactment, this happened several times. Faith would begin White Cliffs of DoverWe'll Meet Again, or some other classic from their time, and suddenly out of nowhere we would hear a wonderfully rusty voice chiming in, singing along with her. 

One such veteran was Mr. Arthur Engelberg. At the ripe age of 99 1/2 (he made sure we didn't forget that extra half), Mr. Engelberg is the very picture of the engaging, robust, World War II veteran. He told us that he rises every morning, looks at himself in the mirror and says, "Thank you, God, for a new day, -and thank you for making me better looking everyday." There was a sparkle in his eyes and a bit of a leprechaun in him as he signed my newspaper, "Brad Pitt." He said that his key to life is a grateful attitude. 

Moments like these are really quite thrilling to me when they occur, bringing us back briefly into a bygone era. Today there is not much connection with the WWII generation. My generation listens to different music, wears different clothes, and has entirely different interests. "Fun" used to mean playing outside, even if that was just marching around with paper hats for crowns and sticks for scepters, or kicking a ball in the street with friends. Not so today. Now, fun means chatting every spare moment on a smart phone or playing the latest Playstation or Xbox game.

All of this does not help to bridge the gap between our generations, and it is easy to forget that yes, they were once young like us, too. We may think their music is out of date or old-fashioned, but it isn't for them. The music that is considered old fashioned or retro was at the top of the charts in their day. The movies that are labeled out of date,  or not interesting enough, were the box-office hits of their time. 

Mr. Arthur Engelberg teaches us to sing, Doodle-li-do, a delightful little ditty. He was by far the best singer in our group!

All this to say how important it is for us to understand the time they grew up in, the culture that formed their identity, and all that made them who they are today.  WWII veterans are some of the most interesting people I have ever met. They have richness of experience and perspective from decades of life that we would be wise to learn from.  We have found that when Faith sings to them, a gap is bridged and a connection is made that goes deeper than what an ordinary conversation could do. It seems to say, "I want to identify with you because I care about you; because you are valuable." And they appreciate it so much. Not every one can sing the songs of WWII (I can't for sure), but there are so many ways to show that you are interested in their life, that you want to learn from them, and that you are grateful for their sacrifice. Whatever effort you make is paid back ten-fold when you see their faces. Life is just so much richer for both.