When they signed up for an Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., three local World War II veterans expected to see the memorials, swap a few stories and spend time thinking about the friends they made and lost a lifetime ago. They didn't expect the outpouring of love and thanks they received from hundreds of complete strangers.
The three Chatham residents, Ian Mott and Robert and Dorothy Raymond, found out about Honor Flight New England after organizer Joe Byron gave a talk at the Chatham Senior Center last November. They signed up for the all-expenses-paid trip a short time later, and made the excursion on April 30. The experience rekindled memories, many fond ones and a few painful ones that had softened over the years.
Ian Mott of South Chatham, 92, was drafted into the U.S. Army two days after his high school graduation and shipped to Europe on the Queen Mary in 1944. His unit was in charge of maintaining vehicles and artillery pieces arriving from the states, and if not for a shortage of available transportation, would've been ordered to cross the channel on D-Day.
“I felt sorry for all those we lost over there,” Mott said. When his unit was finally deployed to the continent, he remembers the spectacle at Le Havre.
“When you went into the harbor, all you could see was sunken warships,” he said.
His unit moved alongside Patton's Third Army as it rocketed from France to Germany, sometimes with the quirky general directing traffic like the scene in the George C. Scott movie. “I saw him do that many, many times,” Mott said with a chuckle.
He remembers the drudgery and the hard work. What does he remember of the six days his unit held guard duty at Buchenwald?
“Too much,” Mott said. He saw carts piled high with the dead victims of the Nazi concentration camp, and took snapshots as proof of the atrocity. “It happened. I saw it.”
The war was a different experience for 94-year-old Dorothy Raymond of West Chatham, who spent three years teaching aerial gunnery in the U.S. Naval Reserve. A member of the WAVES, or Woman Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service, she spent her time in gunnery schools in Hawaii, Pensacola and San Diego, teaching fly-boys how to identify enemy aircraft and how to fire turret-mounted machine guns. Had she ever fired a gun before joining the service?
“No, and never did afterwards,” she said with a laugh. Hers was the first gunnery training program for women, and Raymond remembers some resistance and a few pranks from the young men she was teaching. She also remembered that some of the best aerial gunners were from the South, where hunting live game apparently gave them the knack of aiming ahead of a moving target.
Raymond actually signed up to be an aviation mechanic, so she could have a common tie with her little brother, Robert, who was a bomber pilot in the Army Air Corps. Robert, now 93, lives just down the road from his sister. He was assigned to the 94th Bomber Group of the Eighth Air Force, and flew 35 missions in B-17s, dropping bombs over mostly industrial targets in Germany.
On his wall is a “Lucky Bastard” certificate. Members of his crew were killed before he arrived, and when he was reassigned in 1944, his crew was shot down. Though German fighter cover was weaker near the end of the war, bomber crews still had to contend with deadly anti-aircraft fire and the constant risk of mid-air collisions, he said.
Business trips after the war brought Mr. Raymond to Washington several times, but his sister, who flew all over the world in her 35-year career with TWA, had never been. For his part, Mott hadn't been to the capital in many years. The three vets made their way to Logan Airport in the wee hours and met at the state police barracks for a special bus convoy to their terminal, complete with a police escort. The buses passed by lines of Massport fire trucks, with their uniformed crews standing at attention.
“You wanted to cry almost,” Mr. Raymond said.
They stepped off the bus and through the doors, and were greeted by 600 or 700 cheering people: fellow veterans, volunteers, servicemen from every branch of the military, ordinary airline passengers and a contingent of Boy Scouts, each offering handshakes, gifts and expressions of thanks.
“All I could say was, wow,” Mott said. “If that didn't bring a tear to your eye, nothing will.”
The pilot of the airplane shook the hand of each veteran before starting the flight. On the trip, there was a special “mail call,” where veterans were given bundles of notes from schoolchildren, thanking them for their service.
“In Baltimore, there were even more people to greet us,” Ms. Raymond said. The plane taxied to the terminal under an archway of water made by fire department crash trucks, and after their welcome, the group began its bus tour. The caravan rarely stopped, thanks to police officers who volunteered their time to provide an escort.
Honor Flight took care of the smallest details, providing each guest with a monogrammed jacket and hat, a backpack filled with snacks and a certificate. Each veteran was paired with a “guardian” available to carry items, push wheelchairs or take snapshots, and when no family member was available for the job, volunteers stepped forward. The process was carried out with military precision, Mr. Raymond noted.
A former Manchester, N.H., police officer, Joe Byron volunteered to lead the Honor Flight program in New England after he was inspired by the story of a World War II veteran. Using a growing group of volunteers, the nonprofit organization arranges four or five flights to Washington each year, giving veterans a chance to see landmarks and war memorials. The nation's oldest veterans chiefly from World War II and Korea, are encouraged to take part. Details are posted at www.HonorFlightNewEngland.org.
The organization sees itself in a race to provide its service to World War II veterans, who are now dying at a rate of about 372 each day. Mott said that of the 300 men in his outfit, “there's only three of us left that we know of.” Ms. Raymond knows of only one other surviving WAVE from her unit.
“None of the people that I knew are still living,” Mr. Raymond said.
All three Chatham veterans were moved by the World War II Memorial.
“It's much more extensive than I realized,” Ms. Raymond said. Positioned between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, the National World War II Memorial is a series of 56 pillars, including ones honoring veterans from each state.
Even almost 75 years later, the veterans find themselves thinking about the friends they made and lost during the war.
“It's almost constant,” Mr. Raymond said.