Last week Deer Park resident Ray Daves stood in front of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. He closed his eyes as sobering memories filled his mind. Each gold star on the memorial’s Freedom Wall represents 100 American lives lost during World War II. There are 4,000 gold stars.
For Daves, an 89-year-old survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, those stars are personal. “I thought about men who were my age but didn’t get to enjoy life,” he said. Men like his friend, George Maybee, who was killed on the battleship USS Arizona, which sank during the Pearl Harbor attack.
Daves had wondered if he’d ever get a chance to see the memorial. Then a few weeks ago, he got a call from Spokane police Officer Tony Lamanna, who heads Inland Northwest Honor Flight, which organizes trips for veterans to war memorials. Lamanna invited Daves to travel to D.C. with 24 other World War II veterans. Honor Flight, established in 2005, has helped more than 17,000 veterans see their memorials.
“This trip was awesome,” Daves said. His daughter, Rayma, accompanied him. When they arrived at the airport prior to departure, Lamanna handed Daves and the other veterans a stack of cards and letters from local schoolchildren.
“I was hoping for a letter for each vet,” Lamanna said. “But I was overwhelmed by the response.” The children made cards, colored pictures and expressed their gratitude.
Local television station KREM 2 helped generate funds for the trip. “They raised over $25,000,” Lamanna said. That help allowed Inland Northwest Honor Flight to escort more veterans than on past trips. Additionally, Southwest Airlines donated the airfare for each veteran.
Having a larger group meant a lot to Lamanna. There are 100 veterans on his waiting list, and six died before their trip. “It’s hard to make those calls and be told by a family member that the vet has passed on,” Lamanna said. World War II veterans are given top priority. Lamanna is determined to ensure that as many veterans as possible get to see the memorial. “We’re planning another trip in May,” he said.
For Lamanna, the most rewarding part of these trips is watching how people respond to the veterans. “The way they’re received by people, from little kids to members of their own generation …” His voice broke at the memory. “They take the time to thank them for their service. It’s refreshing to see people know what really matters.”
When the Honor Flight group arrived to change planes in Salt Lake City, they were greeted by a row of Transportation Security Administration employees who stood at “parade rest” – hands clasped behind their backs – while other employees held large American flags. The display was moving and unexpected for Lamanna and the veterans.
Then there was a man in Baltimore who handed Daves a business card when their flight landed. It read: “I am not certain as to how to express my gratitude for all you have done to secure my freedom. Please accept this simple card as a small token of my appreciation.” The signature read, “A grateful American citizen.”
The vets also experienced gratitude at the World War II Memorial. Their visit coincided with that of a group of schoolchildren on a field trip. One by one the students approached the group. “Thank you,” they said. “Thank you for what you’ve done.”
The veterans were also greeted by prominent figures such as Sen. Bob Dole. Dole served in World War II and was injured in combat in Italy. Honor Flight founder Earl Morse also welcomed the local group.
Another famous veteran greeted them as they toured the Capitol campus. Sen. John McCain left his Senate office and boarded the bus. Daves’ daughter, an Army veteran, said, “His (McCain’s) physical stature isn’t big, but he’s a huge man.”
The group toured many sites in addition to the memorial. For Daves, the most meaningful place he visited was Arlington National Cemetery. His eyes filled with tears when he recalled the sight. “You can’t look at that without weeping,” he said. “Thousands and thousands of headstones. It’s impossible to absorb.” His daughter added, “It’s so emotionally draining.”
The shared memory and emotion created a bond among the veterans. “I didn’t know anyone from the group prior to the trip – yet you could feel this instant camaraderie,” Daves said. “We became a family before it was over.”
For Lamanna, that can be heart-wrenching. “The hardest thing about the trip is when you part. You’ve been so close. It’s a letdown when it ends.”
But saying goodbye doesn’t compare to the joy he feels ensuring that members of the “greatest generation” are properly thanked for their service and sacrifice. “When people come up to them at the memorial, they treat them like celebrities,” he said. “I think they deserve to be treated like that every day.”
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