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WARWICK, R.I. — They were young soldiers once, called up from small towns and cities in southeastern New England to serve decades ago in World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam.

On Saturday, these 65 veterans, now elderly and some too frail to walk, came together for their last military tour.

They are the members of Honor Flight Zulu, organized by the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Association, and when they arrived at Rhode Island T.F. Green International Airport before dawn, a crowd of cheering loved ones and strangers were waiting for them.

Supports cheer on veterans from WWII to Vietnam as they make their way through T. F. Green Aiport  in Warwick, R.I., on they way to Washington D.C. about an Honor Flight, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021.
Supports cheer on veterans from WWII to Vietnam as they make their way through T. F. Green Aiport in Warwick, R.I., on they way to Washington D.C. about an Honor Flight, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. Stew Milne/Stew Milne for The Boston Globe

As the Rhode Island Professional Pipes and Drums played, honor guards from police and fire departments, and young members of the military, stood and saluted. They said “thank you,” over and over, to the elderly veterans as they came by. Some of the veterans, even those curled in their wheelchairs, raised a hand to salute back.

There was Peter Ricci, 101 years old, who’d been a minesweeper in the Navy on the USS Superior (AM311) in the Pacific. They were 100 miles from Japan when the war ended, and when they heard the news, Ricci said, he remembered how “the sky looked like the Fourth of July. We were so happy.”

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Now a great-grandfather, the West Warwick man said he’d been eager for this Honor Flight for years. He’ll be joined by his son, who served as a submarine sailor during the Vietnam War.

The father and son don’t talk about the wars. But they would finally see the memorials built to honor their sacrifices. They would be with other men and women who understood what they had been through.

“I will be proud of all of them,” Ricci said of his fellow veterans on the Honor Flight.

The Honor Flights bring veterans and their guardians to Washington, D.C., to tour the war memorials and visit Arlington Cemetery, and then take time for a special “mail call,” where they receive cards and letters from their loved ones.

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“I’m quite frankly thrilled,” said retired Providence Fire Chief George Farrell, who leads the Honor Flights. “You get to see a day that is going to change the lives of so many people, veterans and their families... It’s hard to describe it to people.”

This was the first Honor Flight to fly from Rhode Island since the pandemic began. Some of those who were supposed to fly out in March 2020 have since died, and others became too frail for the 17-hour trip.

Mary Ellen Lehman, right, shakes hands with Korean War veteran Robert Shillaber, U.S. Navy, as his son Stuart Shillaber escorts him through T.F. Airport in Warwick, R.I., Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021.
Mary Ellen Lehman, right, shakes hands with Korean War veteran Robert Shillaber, U.S. Navy, as his son Stuart Shillaber escorts him through T.F. Airport in Warwick, R.I., Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021.Stew Milne/Stew Milne for The Boston Globe

They’ve made adjustments for the pandemic. All of the veterans, their guardians, the medics, and any staff with them are vaccinated. The buses were sanitized. The flights were booked just for them.

There are 14 World War II veterans, including two who are 101 years old, 24 Korean War veterans in their 80s and 90s, and 22 veterans of the Vietnam War. Each of the veterans have their own “guardian,” usually a relative or friend, to escort them during the trip. On Saturday, 20 of the guardians were also veterans or active military themselves, including three who served in Vietnam.

Air Force veteran Peter Barilla, 87, of East Providence, had joined the service in 1952 and went to Korea, and spent four hard years away from his family. “He had missed the most not being able to go home,” said his wife, Sandra.

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Barilla was excited about the Honor Flight, but had almost felt as if he should give his place up to another veteran who had been in the war, his wife said. His family convinced him otherwise. His son-in-law Tom Guthlein, who’d served in the Coast Guard, had accompanied his own father, a World War II veteran, on another Honor Flight years ago. “It was one of the best experiences he’d ever had,” Guthlein said.


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.