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Honor Flight Operation: Gratitude

by David Schwartz, son of Coleman House resident Phil Schwartz

Posted: October 7, 2013

Phil Schwartz and Jack Kates, WWII veterans and Coleman House residents

On Saturday, September 28th, 2013, I had the great privilege of accompanying my father, Philip (Phil) Schwartz and his friend Jacob (Jack) Kates, 92 and 94 years young respectively, on an Honor Flight trip from Boston to Washington DC.  His granddaughter, Ariel Kates Harris, also accompanied Jack.  Both men are residents of the Coleman House, and both are WWII heroes to us, and to them, "guys who were just doing our jobs".

To explain what an Honor Flight trip is about, here is a quote from the organization's website, honorflight.org.

"Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization created solely to honor America's veterans for all their sacrifices. We transport our heroes to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at their memorials. Top priority is given to the senior veterans – World War II survivors along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill."

Now onto the day.  We were all very excited, though not really sure what to expect.  We had been told that this trip would be one of the most memorable and meaningful days of the lives of the veterans, which I now know was totally true, but we were not told that the same would be true for those of us who got to accompany them on this journey.

I picked up my Dad and Jack at the Coleman House entrance at 4:30 in the morning.  I was sleepy, they were wide-awake.  We drove to the Mass State Trooper F Troop HQ next to Logan Airport, our meeting place with the other 65 WWII veterans and their companions and the Honor Flight volunteers.  Hands were shaken, hugs and kisses exchanged, breakfast served, names were checked, T Shirts handed out.  We were loaded onto three buses to transport us to the airport terminal.  A police escort accompanied the buses with lights flashing and sirens blaring, blocking traffic to allow us to quickly reach our first destination.  This was just the beginning of a day full of red carpet treatment for the veterans who were being honored.

We reached the terminal to see the curb lined with ROTC cadets in full dress uniform, standing at attention and saluting the veterans.  We were all in disbelief.  Following the recommendation of our hosts, all veterans willingly allowed themselves to be seated in transporter chairs, and pushed by their guardian through the terminal to the gate, where they were greeted by a chorus singing patriotic songs, and more well wishers who showered them with appreciation.  The standard greeting all day was for people to come close to the veterans, look them in the eye, shake their hand and say things like, “Thank you so much for your service.”

Watching the sunrise, about 150 of us boarded our Southwest charter flight to Baltimore International Airport.  For the duration of the short flight, the veterans were fed profuse amounts of cookies and other sweets.  When we got off the plane in Baltimore, the greeting was even more overwhelming than the last one.  A military brass band played while many members of the armed forces in dress uniform greeted the veterans, saluting, shaking their hands and showering them with appreciation and gratitude.  The Marine bulldog mascot even showed up in full dress uniform.  At this point, three charter flights full of veterans and their guardians had converged at the Southwest Airlines gate at BWI airport.  In addition to our flight from Boston, there were two others, one from Providence, RI, and another from Islip, Long Island. The guardians then escorted their veterans through the terminal to the nine buses waiting outside at the curb.  We boarded the buses and started the hour-long drive to Washington, DC. The bus caravan was escorted by state police cars and a dozen more state police on motorcycles, all with lights flashing and sirens announcing the presence of the WWII VIPs - it was amazing!  On route to DC, our Honor Flight tour guide, Al, a Vietnam veteran, entertained the WWII veterans with stories, humor, amazing facts about Washington, DC, and especially about the establishment of the WWII Memorial, dedicated to them and their fallen comrades from so many years ago.

We drove past Arlington National Cemetery, the soaring Air Force Memorial, then the Pentagon, finally arriving at the WWII Memorial in the center of the Washington Mall, equidistant between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

We got off the buses and were greeted by former Senators Bob and Elizabeth Dole, with paparazzi cameras flashing.  My Dad started talking with the Doles while I took their picture.  I heard him say, "there's my son David".  Elizabeth Dole immediately insisted that I join them saying, "Bob loves families," and instructed the photographers to take pictures of the four of us!  Wow!

At the memorial, there was a 60-member bagpipe marching band comprised of police and firemen playing for the veterans.   What a scene it was when they decided to take an intimate group photo of about 200 veterans and all of us guardians!

Next were a few short speeches, and then they introduced a special guest to thank the veterans.  It was former Secretary of Defense Colin Powell!  He said that today's armed forces succeed on the foundation and accomplishments of the WWII veterans, and thanked them for their service to our country.  After the speeches were over, my dad was one of the few who got the opportunity to shake hands with Colin Powell.

Next the veterans were greeted by Four-Star General Jim Amos, the Marine Commandant, the highest ranking member of the United States Marines and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who again shook hands and thanked them profusely for their service.

When it was time to leave, we boarded the buses back to the Baltimore airport where we were treated to an elegant sit down dinner for 600 people in a very large banquet room at the nearby Marriott, complete with a female singing group who performed Andrews Sisters style songs dressed in red, white and blue outfits.  The biggest treat was the veterans getting to meet their Comrades in Arms and compare stories of where they were during the war, the battles they fought in and other experiences only they would really be able to understand and fully appreciate.

After the banquet, with great fanfare and continued thanks and appreciation, we all boarded the buses back to the airport, then onto the planes to return home, excited, tired and grateful for an unbelievable day.  During the flight back to Boston, our Honor Flight hosts announced that it was time for ‘mail call’.  They handed large manila envelopes out to each veteran, which were filled with letters written by their grandchildren, nieces, nephews and friends, and by students in local elementary schools, expressing deep gratitude and appreciation for the sacrifices that were made by these WWII veterans so that today we can live in a free society.

On the drive home from Logan airport to the Coleman house, Phil and Jack were still wide-awake, long after I was ready for sleep.  I pulled up to the front entrance of the Coleman house and offered to walk them upstairs to their apartments.  Of course they declined, and told me to ‘go home and get some sleep’.

This was all made possible through the commitment of HonorFlights New England, and the financial support of Ocean State Job Lots, which paid for 100% of all costs associated with taking three planes full of veterans, their guardians and Honor Flight staff and volunteers on this amazing journey.  I cannot thank them enough.

It was truly one of the best days in my father’s life, and also in mine.

 

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Comment by Phil | 10/08/2014

Battery A 125 FA. BN 34 division. 5th Army
From 1943. To. 1945