Last month, in tribute to the 77th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a group of 12 World War II veterans journeyed from Austin, Texas, to the nation’s capital to join their brethren in remembering the fallen and honoring those who served.
The Honor Flight veterans represented a tapestry of war experiences, battles and services. They included noncommissioned and commissioned officers; sailors, soldiers and airmen; and those who fought in the Pacific Theater and on the European front.
The veterans were treated to a hero’s send-off in Austin and a joyous welcome in Washington.
“I think it’s just humbling. I couldn't get over it,” said David Fleming, who served in the Army Air Corps in England and France. “It brought me to tears, all the applause going through the airport in Austin and again here in Washington.”
Honoring Sacrifices and Service
The Honor Flight Network’s mission is to bring veterans to the nation’s capital, at no charge to the honorees, so those who served can see the memorials that honor their service and sacrifice.
“To me this is a privilege. It’s an honor to be on the Honor Flight,” former sailor Buddy Sutton said, adding, “I think they're great people and I hope every vet can have the same experience.”
Billy Watkins was 14 years old when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred; he joined the Navy just after his 17th birthday and served in the Pacific Theater as a radar operator.
“I'm certainly no hero,” he said. “But the way people just put themselves out to do this for us, it's hard to take in. It's very emotional.”
The trip culminated with the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day event at the national World War II Memorial.
“I was 16 when Pearl Harbor was bombed and couldn't wait to get in the service when I turned 18 years old,” retired Air Force Lt. Col. Raymond Schaaf said. The B-17 pilot in the Army Air Corps recalled serving as a tail gunner in a particularly harrowing mission where four German ME-109s attacked — a mission for which he earned the Air Medal.
“The first thing I saw was that big black swastika,” he said. “A chill went through me from my heels clear to the roots of my hair.”
At the commemoration, each veteran was recognized for his service. The veterans placed wreaths at the memorial’s Freedom Wall in tribute to the more than 2,400 people killed Dec. 7, 1941, in Japan’s surprise attack on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
Frederick Clinton, a veteran of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, was 14 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Two years later, he dropped out of school, lied about his age and joined the Army.
He has no regrets, he said, pointing out he traveled the world, earned a college education and rose to the rank of colonel. He retired from the military in 1974.
“Everybody comes up and says, ‘Well, thank you for your service,’” said Clinton, who served as an infantryman in France and Germany with the 254th Infantry Regiment, 63rd Infantry Division during the war. “I really should be thanking them for letting me serve.”
Andrew Abugelis, who enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and was assigned to the crew of the aircraft USS Yorktown, serving in the Pacific Theater, has a singular reason for serving: “I decided to join the Navy because of my country,” he said. “I love my country.”
(Editor’s note: Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Raymond Schaaf died Dec. 17, 2018, at age 93. We are grateful that he took the time to share his experiences with the Defense Department during his visit to Washington. The Defense.gov staff offers its condolences to his family and friends.)