Mary Dodge Allen

My Honor Flight with a WWII Veteran

I arrived at the airport at 4:30 am and joined my WWII Veteran near the Guardian and Veteran check-in booth. There were nearly 50 veterans on this trip, and each one had a guardian who spent the day as his or her companion. We were about to fly up to Washington DC on a chartered flight, for a long day trip to honor the veterans, so they could visit the WWII memorial, and other war memorials. Because most of the veterans were in their late 80s or early 90s, we had a medical staff of paramedics and a doctor with us at all times, along with extra helpers. Most of the veterans were from WWII, but a few were from Korea and Vietnam. Many of them wore caps with insignias bearing their branch of service, and a couple of them wore partial uniforms. There were at least three women in the group who had served during WWII.


My veteran, Bernard Hails, 87, served in the Navy on the USS Mount Baker in the Pacific. He was a trailblazer – he was in the first group of 40 black sailors to be assigned to duty on The USS Mount Baker. There were 350 other sailors on this ship. He told me that during the first three months, the black sailors were given a hard time by the other sailors (who didn’t think they’d be able to do the job). But after they had proven themselves, things went more smoothly. The USS Mount Baker was an ammunition supply ship, so this duty assignment was especially dangerous. If the ship had been hit, there would have been little chance of survival – it would have blown to kingdom come.


Bernard was a ‘young’ 87 – he was tall, 6’1” with straight posture. He was able to walk without even a cane at most of the memorials we visited during this special day. He had a great sense of humor, and an easygoing personality. I enjoyed being with him very much. He had never been to Washington DC, so he was looking forward to going on this trip.


Bernard was born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama. Shortly after he turned 18, he joined the Navy and trained at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. From there, he was assigned to the USS Mount Baker. He served in the Pacific, his ship providing ammunition to Admiral Halsey’s fleet, during most of the big battles in 1944-45. After the war, he accumulated enough service points to be honorably discharged in mid-1946 at the rank of Seaman First Class. He settled in Detroit, Michigan, where he got a job at the Chrysler factory. He worked there 30 years and, in 1976 he retired to Florida. We were surprised to learn that we live only about a mile away from each other.


Before we left for Washington DC, we were served a complimentary breakfast of egg wraps, fruit, juice and coffee at the gate. After breakfast, we all stood and said the Pledge of Allegiance, and then a young girl sang the National Anthem a cappella for us. We boarded at 7:00 am. As our plane made its way to the runway, we were saluted by two fire trucks, lights flashing, positioned on opposite sides of our plane. Each truck blasted water from its hose cannon, creating a cascade of water over our plane, which was tinged a soft orange by the light of the sunrise. We all applauded. During our flight, the veterans were each given a cupcake with red, white and blue frosting, and the words: ‘Thank you for your service.’ Bernard was diabetic, so he gave me his cupcake.


We landed at the Baltimore-Washington airport at around 9:30 am. As we walked through the terminal toward the buses that would drive us around Washington DC, the veterans passed through a long reception line of uniformed men and women, from all branches of the service. They shook each veteran’s hand and thanked them for serving. It was very moving! I found my eyes tearing up. Bernard was especially gratified to see that many of them wore Navy uniforms. He was wearing a cap with the Navy insignia, and many of them said, “Go Navy!”


There were two buses which would take us around Washington DC, a ‘Red’ bus and a ‘Blue’ bus. Bernard and I were supposed to be on the Red bus, but – true to my usual strange luck – they had issued me a blue name tag holder by mistake, so I boarded the Blue bus (even though Bernard had a red tag). I was told to go by my name tag color. Well, the two-person teams were all numbered, and our number ‘41’ was supposed to be on the other bus. So naturally, when the leaders did roll call on the Red bus, of course 41 (Bernard and I) were not present. After they realized the mix-up, they let us stay on the Blue bus until we got to the first memorial, and then they gave me a Red name tag and we rode the Red bus the rest of the day. But we were teased by just about everyone in the group for the rest of the day (good-naturedly), and every time they did roll call, ‘41’ was chanted by several in the group. As the day progressed, people would see us and say, “Oh, you’re 41” and then smile. Bernard and I just laughed it off.


Our buses were escorted all day by three uniformed motorcycle police officers, who drove ahead of us with sirens blaring and lights flashing so that we could move easily through traffic. Cars would slow and move over to the side of the freeways as we passed by. It sure made the veterans feel very special (and they are special!)


Our first stop was the Air Force Memorial. Bernard had brought along a disposable camera, and he wanted me to use up all the photos on it. So I took photos of him at each of our stops, with both of our cameras.


The second stop was the Iwo Jima Memorial, which was quite impressive – with its huge statue of the famous scene of Marines raising the flag on the top of Mount Suribachi.


By this time it was noon, so they gave us each a boxed lunch of sandwiches, chips and fruit, which we ate on our bus on the way to the WWII Memorial. Thankfully, the government shut down ended a few days earlier, so all the memorials were fully open. After arriving at the WWII Memorial, we were issued wheelchairs for all of our veterans, because this was a long stop – with time to view the WWII Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Korean War Memorial, all requiring a mile and a half walk along the reflecting pool. Until now, only a few veterans needed wheelchairs to do the tours, (and the buses were set up with wheelchair lifts for them). But now every veteran was asked to use a wheelchair, pushed by their guardian, because of the distance between the memorials.


We all posed at the Pacific side of the WWII Memorial for a large group photo, and then we had free time to tour all the memorials. Bernard was getting a little tired, so he appreciated sitting in the wheelchair. The day was partly sunny, in the low 70’s – and very pleasant. I took plenty of photos of Bernard – and in addition, the group had two professional photographers who took photos and videos of us all day. We also had a local radio personality with us on this trip, and he interviewed a few people. At the WWII Memorial, several tourists stopped to shake Bernard’s hand (and the other veterans) to thank them for their service.


We visited every one of the memorials. I had not seen any of them before. They were all impressive, and evoked in me a deep gratitude for all of the men and women who have served, and are now serving our country. It also reminded me of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. We boarded our buses again at 3:00 pm and drove to Arlington National Cemetery. We viewed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and then afterward, we were treated to a special question and answer presentation by an off duty tomb guard. He explained all about the guards – their training, etc. and he answered questions about their service and about the history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The tomb is guarded 24/7 in all kinds of weather. This young soldier had to guard the tomb during Hurricane Sandy!


Then our buses drove us back to the BWI airport, again with full police escort. By this time a misty rain had begun, and the traffic on Saturday afternoon was really congested in Washington DC. But we sailed through it, as cars moved over for us like the parting of the Red Sea. Bernard told me that he was enjoying every minute of this special day.


After arriving at the airport, we ate a complimentary dinner (purchased at the food court) at our gate, and we all chatted for a while with each other. While there, they had ‘Mail Call’ and each veteran received a large envelope filled with thank you letters, written by school children. One of the guardians was a member of the school board, and she had arranged for literally hundreds of letters to be written for them! Bernard let me read the ones in his envelope. They were so cool – some were from elementary children, who said only a few words but drew cute pictures. Other letters were from middle and high school students, who expressed their heartfelt thanks to the veterans. One of the other veterans shared a letter from his packet, which had obviously been written by a very young student. He thought it was kind of funny, in a touching way. I will paraphrase it: “Thank you for your service. How long were you a veteran? How many body parts did you lose?”


The whole day was special – but it wasn’t over yet. Our plane was again saluted by two fire trucks, lights flashing, spraying water canons. We landed at 10:30 pm and the veterans were given a heroes welcome! Literally, hundreds of people were lined up to greet them!


A middle school band played patriotic songs! It was incredibly moving, and a wonderful way to end the day. People had signs, balloons, flags, and they were all cheering and shaking veteran’s hands. I had tears in my eyes. It was a tribute long overdue. I wish my three uncles, John (Marines), Bill (Navy)and Gordon (Army Air Corps), could have also been with me on this Honor Flight.

John, Bill, and Gordon