Honoring World War II Veterans teaches Coast Guardsmen valuable lessons

WASHINGTON - John Long, a World War II veteran and Missouri native, stands before the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., during his trip with the Honor Flights Network, Nov. 17, 2010.  Long served as a gunners mate in the Coast Guard serving three years in WWII and two additional years during the Korean War. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Brazzell.

Washington - John Long, a World War II veteran, stands before the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Brazzell.

Washington – “So much of it is kind of like a dream,” recalls John Long, a man in the last stages of his life. Though old and showing signs of frailty, one could best describe his features as noble or dignified without giving you the feeling you couldn’t talk to him – kind of like Mr. Rogers. When looking into his blue eyes, it’s as though you’re staring into a bookcase filled with thousands of tales just waiting to be read. Upon his head he wears, as most World War II veterans do, a hat representing the branch of service he was in. The words Coast Guard surrounded by a few memorable pins along with the name of the ship he sailed on –it too having a place in Long’s memory.

It’s 1944 and Long stands on the deck of the LST, a naval vessel used during World War II to deliver tanks, cargo and supplies to troops on enemy shores. Their mission is to protect the troops they had dropped off earlier that day from any form of an air strike. It is now the dead of night and tensions of the crew are thicker by the moment. Reports that a Japanese naval fleet was growing closer and closer was heard coming in over the radio.

“We knew that once they got into the harbor, we didn’t have any weapons big enough to fight ships that size,” said Long. “There was nobody between us and them. Their plan was to wipe out the invasion fleet there and then basically bombard the troops ashore. We sat all night long watching these flashes of gunfire in the sky. That was probably the longest night in my life.”

This is but one night in the five years Long served for his country. Like so many others, Long risked a lot when he signed up for the military at young age of 17. His parents knew that by signing the consent form, they were sending yet another son to the war; fully knowing there was a chance their son may never return home.

Now Long, 85 sits on a plane filled with his fellow veterans headed for Washington, D.C. They have been invited to see the war memorials erected in their names and for many, including Long, it’s for their first time.

John steps off the plane and is immediately met by an unusual surprise. Before him, lined up in the passageway, stands a group of young service men and women from all branches of the military. With bright smiles, they reach out their hands and thank him for his service.

As he continues to walk into the boarding area, a large crowd erupts into a frenzy of whistles and clapping. Brass instruments from a dozen or so musicians gleam in the morning’s light as they begin playing familiar military songs. Men, woman and children gather around giving praise and adornment to what they see as a genuine band of heroes.

“It really brought tears to our eyes when we came into the airport and found people lined up expressing gratitude for what we had done that long ago,” said Long. “I’ve come back from two wars, and I’ve never been greeted like that.”

This welcoming of World War II veterans into the heart of the nation’s capital is just the beginning of a day set forth by the Honor Flight Network, a non-profit organization created to honor the American veterans who served their country during World War II. It is a program run strictly by volunteers and survives today because its members embody a strong sense of appreciation for veterans. The program also serves as an opportunity for Coast Guard members and others in the military to honor those before them by volunteering their time.

The Honor Flight Network began when a former Air Force captain, working at the Ohio Veterans Affairs office at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base, began to notice that a number of his patients had never seen the World War II Memorial due to financial restraints. Being a pilot, he decided to start flying veterans on his own dime. In 2004, he asked a group of veterans if they would fly to the nation’s capital for a day if they didn’t have to pay a thing for it. Many of them accepted saying they would probably never see it otherwise.

In time, others began to sign up and the newly founded program started catching steam. The first year alone, they took 137 veterans. Within a short time, that number quickly grew to more than 300.

“The Honor Flight program is literally a once in a lifetime opportunity for many WWII veterans to see the memorials that were constructed in their honor,” said Angela Ford, a marine science technician at Coast Guard Sector Baltimore who volunteered with the Honor Flight Network. “The program arranges for veterans to fly in from around the country and spend the day touring the memorials in D.C., something most never had a chance to do and thought they would never do because of medical or financial restrictions.”

Volunteers such as Ford are needed to keep the program running. She decided that she wanted to volunteer because she felt strongly about doing something for veterans.

“That generation experienced life in a way we may never see again,” said Ford. “The vets experienced atrocities that this generation can barely comprehend. I can only imagine how it must feel to have been right in the thick of some of the craziest events in world history and to live in a society so far removed from that time. They were there; they saw it and lived it. Their experiences are priceless, and we need to hear their story while we still can,” said Ford.

Humorous anecdotes, memories of adventure and tragic tales of loss, come rushing out to someone who signs up as a guardian – a term given to someone who is paired with a veteran for the day. Along with other duties, guardians get the opportunity to listen and spend time with the veterans as they explore the monuments.

One of the more regular guardians that can be found volunteering is Dale Beeby. Now retired, Beeby assists veterans in and out of wheelchairs, explains the monuments, and lends an eager ear to men with minds full of stories close to their hearts.

“The greatest enjoyment I get out of it is listening to their stories,” said Beeby in amazement. “Many of them get down to the World War II memorial and have never talked about it, never. They get down there and the tears start to come, and it’s like everything is coming out that they have held in for so many years.”

With more than 29 flights under her belt, Beeby says she doesn’t see herself stopping.

“It’s just an incredible experience,” said Beeby. “For a lot of them, it’s opening up a box they haven’t really let anyone into. They talk, and then it becomes easier when they go back home. It can be a very earth-shaking thing for a lot of guys, and I just can’t tell you how rewarding that is.”

“Any volunteer work can be rewarding, but if you’re looking for a way to help with World War II vets, try greeting at an Honor Flight,” said Ford. “If you like what you see and want to devote more time, apply to be a guardian and spend the entire day with them to get the full impact.”

Volunteering not only rewards the individual but it can help veterans in profound ways as well.

“I’ve found from the notes that I’ve had from guys that I have spent the day with that it’s just made their whole life just that much less burdened,” said Beeby.

It’s not uncommon during a trip of this caliber that lasting friendships between the veterans and the guardians are made. Beeby herself has received countless letters as well as bouquets of flowers from veterans showing their appreciation for her.

“’You’re the sweetest I’ve ever had,’” Beeby read from a letter sent to her from a veteran. “’My trip to D.C. was great. The most heartfelt was the Honor Flight people and their beautiful organization – especially you guardians. When we arrived back, the reception was so great it took me two hours before I could settle down and fall asleep. I have been out of the social world for 15 years as most of my friends are dead and gone. My only connection is TV and radio. You people have restored my faith in society.’ It’s just amazing the kinds of reactions you get,” said Beeby.

Her favorite letter came from a veteran in Kansas City, Mo., which read, “You made my life and soul come back to reality. Please stay my friend. I hope I don’t sound too selfish but thanks again for making my life and soul that much better.”

“The sad part of it is 20 days later I had heard that he had died,” said Beeby.

World War II veterans are dying at an increasing rate each day and so are their stories. To date 35,996 veterans have been given the chance to see the memorials, yet there are still many who have not gone. In order for this number to grow volunteers are needed. A call is going out to service members and civilians alike to volunteer their time to those who volunteered their service, by lending an ear, pushing a chair and honoring a veteran.

“Remembering them now and forever is the greatest honor we can impart,” said Ford.

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