My dad, Everett Kandarian Jr., served in the US Coast Guard in World War II. By his humble accounts, he didn’t see much action. He came home, went to work, got married and raised a family. He said little about the war. Just like most veterans.
Two years ago, I took him to Washington with Honor Flight New England, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit that flies World War II vets, at no cost to them, to the nation’s capital to see the war memorials, and honor them for their service.
For many, it is the first time their efforts had been recognized.
“No one ever thanked us before,” my dad marveled, echoing the thoughts of many veterans as I wheeled him through Logan Airport, where firefighters, cops, military personnel and the general public saluted, waved flags and cheered, a scene that would be repeated constantly in Washington. “I guess we’re heroes today. Tomorrow, we’ll be old men again.”
The stories you hear from these vets, hearing aids replacing helmets, walkers and wheelchairs replacing rifles and boots, are captivating, many aired for the first time. Bill Flachbacht, 94, twice shot while serving in the infantry, fought at Enzio and Salerno. His unit once took over an airport the enemy controlled, shooting the tires out of a German plane that was trying to escape. He regularly goes to lunch with a group of men who never knew what he did.
“You know,” he told me with an incredulous look, “I’ve talked about the war today more than I ever have in my life.”
Stanley Stopper of Lynn, 88, was in the infantry. He got captured by the Germans and spent time in three prisoner-of-war camps. How did you get through it, I asked?
“You just did,” he shrugged. “One guy in a top bunk complained he was sick all the time. We thought he was a crybaby. The next morning in roll call, he didn’t come out. He’d died.”
Stopper’s capture was in 1944, a presidential election year. Soldiers had absentee ballots. But most couldn’t vote. They weren’t old enough.
“We were too young,” Stopper said with a sad smile. “Why do you think they send 18-year-olds to war?”
Alan LaFleur was in the Navy, aboard a ship in the Mediterranean, a gunner’s mate. He’d just gotten paid and wanted in on a poker game below decks. He asked a buddy to switch watch duty with him. The guy was too tired, and wanted to sleep. So LaFleur stood his watch on the ship’s bow.
“Then the torpedoes hit,” said the 88-year-old vet. “My life was saved by being on the bow. Someone was looking out for me.”
Honor Flight buses in Washington are led by police escort, parting traffic, making the trip smoother. At the World War II Memorial, appreciative onlookers shook hands with vets, hugged them, shed tears, gave thanks. These guys fought to save the world, and for a few hours in Washington, were sitting on top of it.
It took some by surprise.
“I’m thrilled with this,” said Harold Segal, 96, who left Boston University to enlist after Pearl Harbor, serving in Italy and North Africa. “I can’t believe it, people shaking our hands, thanking us . . . but don’t thank us, we were attacked. We did what we had to do. This is the greatest country on earth.”
At the airport for our return, Joe Byron, retired police officer and founder of Honor Flight New England, put on World War II-era music. Vets who could rose to dance with pretty girls. Those who couldn’t danced from their wheelchairs. Jim Delaney Jr., 88, a decorated Marine vet of World War II and Korea who was wounded six times, struggled to his feet when Byron played “The Marines’ Hymn.” Delaney sang every word and sat back down.
Earlier in the day, we were at Arlington National Cemetery when I noticed, apart from our group, an old man in a blue blazer carrying a wreath, hustling as best he could toward the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He returned moments later and rested on a park bench as our group of vets streamed by in wheelchairs. I sat with him and learned he’d been a corpsman at D-day. He was here with the wreath to prepare for a memorial service for his old unit later.
Our vets rolled past. They greeted the old man in the blue blazer and he greeted them, shouting out what they did in the service, making some small connection about the larger calling they once shared.
“Good-looking bunch!” the old corpsman laughed, as our vets shook his hand or saluted him. He saluted right back.
He stood to leave. Under his blue blazer, on which were pinned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, the colors of the hero and the wounded, was a brace stretching from waist to the top of his frail chest. I asked what it was.
“Ah, just something I got from the VA,” he said. “I have a bad back. It helps me stand up.”
He ambled off. And I realized that counting this man and every other World War II veteran, including my dad, who died last August at 85, I would never see a bunch of more stand-up guys in my life.
HONOR FLIGHT NEW ENGLAND