(The mission of Louisiana Honor Air is to see that every Louisiana WWII Veteran has a chance to see their Memorial in Washington, D.C. Reporter Bill Capo and photographer Brian Lukas accompanied the Louisiana Veterans for the daylong event. Lukas shared his memories and images of their trip and of other memorials this Veterans Day.)
"A nation that forgets its history loses its identity and a nation that forgets its hero's renounces its honor"-- Archbishop Philip Hannan, New Orleans, WWII veteran
At 4:30 a.m. the Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans was lumbering to start a new day. But at the entrance to the east concourse people were already scurrying around in a flurry of activity. A welcome table was positioned just beneath a large banner hanging from the top rafters. Hats and nametags were neatly placed in a single line for quick distribution to the honored guest. Louisiana Honor Air was about to welcome more than 90 WWII veterans traveling to Washington, D.C. They were going to visit their monument dedicated to their service in WWII.
Among the first to arrive was Ronald Plaisance from “down the bayou.” He is the only living Pearl Harbor survivor from Lafourche Parish.
Other veterans arrived in various groups; many came by themselves escorted by family members. The veterans walked slowly, many carried canes to aide their balance, and some were in wheelchairs. One veteran remarked, “Many of us can’t afford to go a trip. This is good for us.”
The veterans were welcomed at the check-in station by Sallie Varrelman of Louisiana Honor Air.
“This is payback time,” she said. “I saw them as there were as GI’s and I don’t see them as they are now, I see them as there were.”
Rear Admiral Mary Landry of the US Coast Guards hugged a veteran who came up to her. She pointed to him and to the camera and proudly exclaimed, “He is Coast Guard.”
The WWII veterans brought with them pictures of their service and with the pictures they remembered the details of one of the most dramatic times in their lives.
Vernon Kinchen, from Marrero, La., brought a picture of the destroyer escort he was on. He told the story of his experience on the invasion of the Philippines. “ I was the gun captain on the number two gun. It was at night and we got in so close to the Japanese battleships with their 17-inch guns; they were shooting over us; they couldn’t lower their guns down to hit us. We got in and sunk everything they had.”
Another veteran started talking about the enemy’s suicide attacks in that battle. Amazingly, these WWII veterans remembered, in detail, their experience and openly shared their memories with others on the trip.
As the veterans boarded the plane to Washington, they walked past a military honor guard. WWII veteran John Delucca from Metairie was trying his best to make one of the honor guard smile. “I was always a cut-up,” he said.
On the flight, T.D. Smith from Louisiana Honor Air, read a poignant passage from Stephen Ambrose’s acclaimed book, “A Band Of Brothers” and emphasized why it is important that WWII veterans have a chance to see their memorial. On the flight, it is noted that one of the veterans, 87, married his 84-year-old sweetheart and is spending his honeymoon with his “Band of Brothers.”
Landing at Reagan International Airport, the welcome began. An impressive spray of water streamed out of two fire engines salutes the veterans. The waters arced over the aircraft in their honor. Baggage carts were wrapped in American flags, welcome signs honoring the vets were displayed near the concourse. Exiting the aircraft, the Louisiana veterans were greeted by the loud, syncopated rhythm of a big band sound. The musical notes seemed to resonate throughout the concourse. Only the cheers and applause of those who filled the terminal welcoming the veterans to Washington overpowered the impressive greeting. Smiles were the order of the day. John Delucca from Metairie danced off the plane into what he called “a New Orleans jive.” “This is the biggest surprise of my life”, he said.
But at the Iwo Jima Memorial, honoring the Marine Corps raising the American Flag on Mt. Suribachi, the ever-joking and ever-dancing Louisianan John Delucca stared at the memorial in quiet reverence. He put his hand on his chin and cried. Quickly reclaiming his composure, he said, “I was there.”
It is said that history doesn’t linger long, but with these veterans memories last forever. It was a cool day here in Washington, and there were many tourist and locals taking the opportunity to visit the Washington monuments.
Among the veterans from Louisiana are other large groups – veterans from other states along with high school and college students. John Delucca remarked, “You see these fine young people here....it reminds us of when we were that age and how we all came together in defense of our country. It was remarkable when you think about it at that time. Usually, I’m not at a loss for words, but this is overwhelming.”
Another veteran remarked, “It’s very, very touching for a former Marine to look up there and realize what happened that day...if it doesn’t touch you, you’re not human.”
There was a slight drizzle of rain at Arlington Cemetery. One Louisiana veteran stared over the rows of neatly aligned white tombstones. His eyes began to fill with tears. “You still get a feeling from it even when you’re an old man barely moving around,” he said.
In his early 20s, Sgt. Benton Thames from Denham Springs, La. is an honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He has guarded the Tomb of the “Unknowns” for nearly three years.
Benton escorted a group of Louisiana veterans to a room near the base of monument. This group of Louisiana veterans participated in the ceremony honoring the “Unknowns.” Benton explained the history of the honor guard and the protocol for laying a wreath at the tomb. “The amount that those unknowns sacrificed, by giving up not only their lives, but their identities is the ultimate sacrifice and to be able to honor them is simply amazing.”
One veteran posed the question about the extraordinary sharpness of the honor guards’ uniforms. Benton replied, “We do it all ourselves.”
Later, in a ceremony benefiting the emotion of the event four Louisiana veterans -- three veterans walking, one in a wheel chair -- followed the Honor Guard to the front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. With their colleagues looking on, they placed their wreath at the Tomb. In the distance there was simple sound of a bugle echoing “Taps” -- a sound that seemed to create a reverence of place….to this place. It was an emotional and moving event for all.
The sprawling WWII Memorial was the next stop. College students from Washington, D.C. were there to welcome the Louisiana veterans. Navy veteran Alice Millet from Metairie said, “It’s been a beautiful day. I never thought I’d see something that would honor the women veterans of the United States. We did our part.”
Hebert Stone from New Orleans was in the Battle of the Bulge. It was his mission today to find that campaign etched in the granite of the monument. “At the Battle of the Bulge my division lost over 50 percent. To be here now is like a miracle.”
It was amazing to listen to the level of detail these veterans recalled about their experiences more than 60 years ago. “I was in the engineers,” Hebert Stone went on to say. “We had to clear land mines. On November 16, 1944, I remember to this day, my lieutenant said, ‘I want you to take two peeps (vehicles slightly smaller than a jeep) and go up the road to find out where the front is.’ I thought to myself that was a hell of a mission. Unbeknownst to me the Battle of the Bulge had begun and I wasn’t notified.”
There were other stories, other memories shared with friends and escorts. But I could not wonder if these Veterans, who were so willing to share their experiences with strangers, were even asked about that dramatic time in their youth by their families back home in Louisiana.
After visiting the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, the Korean and Vietnam Memorial, it was time to board the plane back to New Orleans. It had been a long day - a pleasant day for everyone. But the day was not over. Upon arrival in New Orleans a cheering crowd and military band greeted the veterans. Their family members greeted them as if they had just returned from their service in World War II. With tears in his eyes one veteran said, "It’s been a beautiful day." It means a whole lot to do something from your heart.”
I asked another veteran what was her favorite memory of today, she said, “Everything.”
Louisiana Honor Air had accomplished their mission today.
The Vietnam Memorial
On a personal note, in 1982, I accompanied three Vietnam veterans from Louisiana to the dedication of their memorial - the Vietnam Memorial. In the crowd near the memorial there was an elderly gentleman walking by himself shaking the hand of every Vietnam veteran he passed. It was retired Army Gen. Westmoreland – the commander of the troops for the majority of the conflict in Vietnam. Glenn Taylor, Ron Gardner and Bill Ryan were among the Louisiana Vietnam veterans Gen. Westmoreland thanked for their service. Almost 30 years later the remarks of these three Vietnam veterans about the “Wall” still lingers in memory.
Ron Gardner said, "I think about the pain on that wall, the screams. I think about the love that everyone exhibited toward each other, that I hadn't seen before going to Vietnam and I hadn't seen since.”
Glenn Taylor said, "The story I think is in the faces of the people that you see here. There not here by accident. The kids that you see slowly walking by their dads are up there that they never saw. There's a little bit out of all of us on that wall. You see the numbers 59,000, something like that. But when you see it, up there, there's a lot of people you wonder what society could have done with these guys.”
Bill Ryan said, "It created a little confusion but I think that's what the Vietnam War was all about. Trying to locate the names of the people that you know died, and the initial confusion of it brought back memories of everyday survival in Vietnam. But I think the monument will grow and it will create a focal point of contemplation of what went on in the Vietnam War.”
One year later in 1983, I would find myself on the battlefield in Beirut, Lebanon. A suicide bomber destroyed the Marine Corps barracks. The massive explosion killed 241 soldiers and sailors.
It was December and Christmas was just a few days away. A condition-1 alert had been initiated on the Marine base. There were incoming mortars rounds in the distance and the front gate would be locked shortly. The Marine base was the target. We had to leave quickly.
But as I left the Marine base, I noticed a small memorial in front of the former Marine barracks. Despite the imminent danger, I couldn't help but stop, notice and film the small bouquet of light blue flowers ringed around a Marine-issued camouflage hat. Above the flowers is a small, white sign facing east, toward the city of Beirut. The small sign simply described the Marines' mission in Beirut: To the "24th MAU, They came in peace."
Unfortunately, history does not linger long. The Beirut veterans of America petitioned the Postal Committee for a simple but symbolic gesture to memorialize their mission in Beirut – a stamp to be issued by the U.S. Postal Service. The stamp was initially denied, however, after a hearing to reconsider a meeting for further review is scheduled in 2010.
The words of New Orleans Archbishop Hannan, A WWII Veteran, expressing why a nation must remember those who served should be emphasized:
"A nation that forgets its history loses its identity and a nation that forgets its hero's renounces its honor."
Tonight at 10 p.m. on Channel 4, see the companion story to this Veterans' Day tribute. Bill Capo and photographer Brian Lukas show you the tears, the smiles, and the solemn remembrances that these veterans experienced on their trip to Washington.