A trip of a lifetime: Area WWII veterans to visit Washington, D.C.

Photo by Dan Balmer/Peninsula Clarion Dick Weaver, Bud Gilbertson and Robert Harrison all of Nikiski board a flight to Anchorage Tuesday morning at the Kenai Municipal Airport. The men are part of a group of six World War II veterans from the Kenai Peninsula traveling to Washington D.C. with 50 other veterans from Alaska on the honor flight trip that takes veterans to visit WWII memorials.

Nikiski resident Robert Harrison had always wanted to visit the National World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., but at the age of 87, he didn’t know if he would get the chance in his lifetime.

 

Harrison served in the U.S. Army as a medic during WWII and cared for the wounded when they returned home from battle. When he heard about the Last Frontier Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization that takes veterans on an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington D.C. to visit the war memorial, he jumped on the opportunity.

Harrison is one of six WWII veterans from the Kenai Peninsula who joined up with 50 veterans from across Alaska for a four-night trip to the nation’s capital. Harrison joined Leon Merkes of Sterling, Willard Jorgensen of Kenai, Bob Breakfield of Soldotna, and Nikiski residents Bud Gilbertson and Dick Weaver.

The veterans departed from Kenai Municipal Airport to Anchorage Tuesday where they caught up with the rest of the group and will spend the night in Portland, Ore., where they will attend a dinner banquet before flying to Washington, D.C., Wednesday morning. Veterans will have a guardian with them as they tour the memorials dedicated in their honor, said Chuck Cook, honor flight organizer on the Kenai Peninsula.

“This is a way for us to honor their service,” Cook said. “Times have changed in the world and this trip is meant to get back to our roots that make this country what it is.”

Airfare, hotel accommodations and all meals are taken care of through donations made to the non-profit and wheelchairs and oxygen are available as needed during the tour.

Cook accompanied the first Alaska Honor Flight as a guardian in October 2012. He said the trip comes full circle for veterans, with some who share their war stories for the first time.

As the veterans waited to board, each had a story to tell of their military experience. Merkes was a member of the 82nd Airborne Army Division during WWII, while Jorgensen fought with the infantry in the Battle of the Bulge.

Breakfield, who served in the U.S. Navy on the USS Guadalupe during WWII, said he is looking forward to seeing the Navy Memorial for the second time.

“You always appreciate the chance to pay respect to the men and women who fought to preserve our freedom,” he said.

The WWII Memorial, built in 2004, is dedicated to the 16 million who served in the U.S. armed forces and the more than 400,000 who died. Cook said between 600-1,200 WWII veterans die every day and many have never had the opportunity to view the memorial.

When Robert Harrison applied for the first Honor Flight in 2012, he was told he wasn’t old enough because the program wanted to give the oldest veterans first priority, said his daughter Kathleen Harrison. While boarding the plane on Tuesday, Harrison could not help but grin with anticipation.

“He is really excited for the trip,” she said. “It is important all these people are honored an recognized.”

When Cook attended the first Honor Flight, crowds of friends and family greeted them at the airport thanking them for their service. Their tour buses received a police escort and a group of 800 kids on a field trip at Arlington National Cemetery came up and shook all the veterans hands, he said. On the flight back, guardians would do a mail call and give thank you letters written from friends and family to the veterans.

“There wasn’t a dry eye on the whole plane,” he said. “It is nice to see them get recognition for their service.”

Reach Dan Balmer at daniel.balmer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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