By Aaron Retherford
Last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated 413 World War II veterans die each day. With each death, our connection to that era dwindles.
One longtime Graniteville resident recently experienced just how far younger generations are willing to go in order to preserve that bond.
Cecil “Pete” Tucker was drafted into the military on Sept. 3, 1942 and served in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska for two of his three years of service, where he worked on airplanes. He never saw combat, but he did work side by side with the Soviets, who took the planes to Siberia to be used in the war.
Tucker remembered those days as one of 22 veterans on the Honor Flight New England trip in April. Honor Flight New England honors WWII or terminally ill veterans by flying them to Washington D.C. to visit the memorials dedicated to those who served in the military.
While Tucker didn’t know much about the program before a neighbor brought him information, he now believes any veteran who has the chance to experience an Honor Flight should do it.
Four days after turning 94, Tucker and his daughter, Jane – who acted as his guardian for the day – headed to the VA in Manchester, NH for 5 a.m. meeting. That’s where the experience of a lifetime began.
While the veterans traveled by school bus, a group of 70 motorcyclists led the way to the airport. Waiting there were two fire trucks with ladders extended high into the air. Hanging from the ladders was a giant American flag, spanning over the highway as the bus drove underneath. The airport corridors were lined with people, eagerly waiting to greet the veterans before most people wake up on a Sunday. After landing in Baltimore, two fire trucks sprayed their hoses over the airplane, forming a rainbow.
Honor Flight New England got all the minor details perfect. For military servicemen abroad, mail call was a welcome distraction. As part of the Honor Flight, each veteran received a manila envelope filled with mail, wishing them a good trip. Tucker said he received over 30 cards.
Once the veterans arrived in D.C., a police escort made sure they never waited in traffic. Also, every veteran is given a wheelchair to use.
Tucker hadn’t been to the nation’s capital since the mid-1970s and had never visited the World War II National Memorial, which opened to the public in 2004. As a bonus, Tucker’s nephew and family joined him at the memorial.
Along with visiting the WWII Memorial, the Honor Flight group drove by the Naval Memorial, visited the Marine Corps War Memorial, and toured the Air Force Memorial near the Pentagon. Tucker, a lifelong airplane buff, said the architecture of the Air Force Memorial was stunning and impressed him even more than the WWII Memorial.
Tucker also watched the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery. While he appreciated the sanctity and tradition of Arlington National Cemetery, it wasn’t his favorite part of the trip.
“They’d have to pay me about $10,000 a day to do that,” he joked. “It was the most boring job.”
After a buffet dinner, the trip concluded with a flight back to Manchester, and a school band was there to play for the veterans at 10:15 p.m., capping off the more than 17-hour trip.
“It was really nice to be able to spend the day with him like that,” Jane Tucker said. “The reception of the people was phenomenal.”
“I can’t believe how many hands I shook that day,” Pete Tucker said.
However, none of this could have happened without Joe Byron, a retired police officer from New Hampshire and a Vietnam War vet.
Toward the end of his career in law enforcement, Byron was investigating crimes against the senior population. He heard a story from a vet dealing with survivor’s guilt, which inspired Byron to do more. Byron founded Honor Flight New England in 2009 and completed his 37th Honor Flight on Sunday.
“I think there are a couple of goals in mind when we do these trips,” Byron said. “One is to ensure their service will never be forgotten and to let them know America still loves them. The other goal is to show them how much we appreciate how much they’ve done for us and if need be, to possibly bring some closure to some of the experiences they lived.”
“They treated us like royalty, that’s for sure,” Pete Tucker said.
If you are a veteran or know of any veterans who might be interested in taking an Honor Flight, check out www.honorflightnewengland.org or call Byron at 603-518-5368 for more information.