Gateway: Living

Puget Sound Honor Flight leaves indelible memory for WW II vet

One month ago on this date, 60 Puget Sound Honor Flight World War II veterans and their escorts walked, or rode in wheelchairs, through welcoming lines of applauding well-wishers who shook their hands and gave each vet a fresh carnation as they entered the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I was honored to be among them.

My trip started months ago when Vaughn Elementary teacher Marci Cummings-Cohoe advised me that it was going to happen. What a nice idea, I thought. Thereafter, I was invited on various dates to assemblies at Vaughn and Evergreen elementaries and Gig Harbor High. I attended, camera in hand for a photo op, not really comprehending that each school had collected funds to support my Puget Sound Honor Flight.

It was a humbling and surprising experience to realize I’d been so honored. I asked Jim & Renee Peavey, organizers of PSHF, who else from the peninsula area was on the flight.

“No one,” I was told.

Then, two weeks before liftoff, a cancellation made possible the addition of Donald Crounce of Longbranch for the trip. He’d been disappointingly scheduled for October. Now, he crowned the “trip of a lifetime” with his 90th birthday in the WWII Memorial on May 10 when, arrayed in lines at parade rest along the memorial’s reflecting pool, we vets and a crowd of local welcomers sang Happy Birthday to him. Icing on the cake!

Our group hailed from throughout Puget Sound. About half of us were in wheelchairs. Almost all of us had a guardian. Our son, Lance, was mine. Wives were not invited. We gathered at the obscene hour of 6 a.m. at SeaTac Airport, where we were treated by applauding airport personnel, passengers and airport security, all in their dress blues, as special. We breezed through security.

On disembarking at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, we moved through applauding rows of other passengers and airport personnel, shaking our hands and thanking us for our service. What a humbling, rewarding, heart-rendering experience. We boarded a large comfortable bus where wheelchairs by the score were stored with the luggage for rapid availability at the BWI Airport Hilton Hotel and another gracious welcome. The banquet which followed was excellent, as were get-acquainted chats with fellow travelers.

After a sumptuous breakfast Sunday, we boarded our bus, driven by Al Barnes, a veritable fountain of knowledge of everything along the road to and in Washington, D.C. A squadron of escorting motorcyclists led the way. Barnes gave us a brief tour of WDC before bringing us to the WWII Memorial where, again, we were flanked by applauding, hand-shaking citizens who, in this case, gave each vet a fresh carnation. We wandered about the very impressive memorial, which has stations for each state in the union. We, of course, were photographed at Washington state’s.

Celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe, the memorial was decorated with beautiful wreaths from every allied nation, some of which I wasn’t even aware had armed forces on our side.

Thereafter, we visited the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials. I wish I had space to describe how very moving these experiences were. After box lunches on our bus, we visited the always-moving Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial and marveled that every one of the etched-in-granite pronouncements he made during the 1930s and 40s, which pertain today as well as then. In downtown Washington, we were fascinated with the site and contents of the U.S. Navy Museum.

A banquet at the hotel included presentation of the colors by the Junior Marine Color Guard and patriotic songs by a Coast Guard trio emulating the sounds of the 1940’s Andrews Sisters and presentation of awards to WWII vets.

Sunday, after stowing our luggage aboard our bus, we again proceed with motorcycle escort, to WDC where our driver gave us a well identified tour of the city before we visit the impressive Service Women’s Memorial. On our visit to Arlington National Cemetery we were fortunate to witness the changing of the guard at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. From there we stopped at the Marine Corps Iwo Jima Memorial, then the U.S. Air Force Memorial. A full day followed by box lunches aboard our bus as we returned to BWI Airport for our return flight.

PSHF photographers Christine Ikenaga, Mary Edwards and Patricia Keith kindly accepted my almost 1,000 photos to compliment the many more they shot for a disc which will commemorate our trip and be sent to each of us. My last photos were actually downloaded while on the flight back home.

“It was a very well organized whirlwind of experience in our nation’s capital, and I can’t believe all the sights we were able to visit in one weekend and how incredibly nice and accommodating all the people from the Honor Flight program were,” Crounse said.

I learned that Crounse served in the Pacific theater aboard a number of vessels, initially escort carriers. He does not readily speak of his war experiences but disclosed that he’d been involved in the landings at Tarawa, Tinian, Saipan and Okinawa, and was in the thick of the battle of Leyte Gulf. His most memorable and exhilarating experience, one in which “we all cheered,” he said, was aboard the battleship USS Mississippi in Tokyo Bay near the battleship USS Missouri as the Japanese signed the surrender documents ending World War II.

Our return to SeaTac was overwhelming. We passed through ranks of members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, each applauding and shaking our hands. One service member peeled off as an escort for each of us as we moved, almost awe-struck through ranks of military and civilians welcoming us home. Among these was a large contingent of enthusiastic Gig Harbor High welcomers, chanting the name of one of us. Flattering! I was spoiled; friends from throughout Peninsula School District welcomed me home.

We vets received beautiful handmade quilts from ladies representing Washington state Quilts of Valor. At an airport assembly area, a welcome home ceremony included speeches, songs and a very professional 1940s jitterbug dance to music of that period by a Port Orchard elementary school.

It would take more column inches to tell this story than a dozen issues of The Gateway could provide. We crowded three weeks worth into three days! There is no way to adequately thank our leaders, the Peaveys, daughter Taryn, and sons Cameron and Tanner, who thought of and delivered any and everything to make the trip a huge success for all vets. PSHF board member and Gig Harbor resident Kathy and husband Paul Belisle as guardians added to our vets enjoyment of the trip and Fred Berry, also a Gig Harborite PSHF board member, was in charge of the spectacular military presence/escorts at the homecoming.

It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.