From Army to Navy, tank driver to pilot, the non-profit Leatherstocking Honor Flight Network has provided free flights to Washington D.C. for World War II veterans from every branch of the service, and of every occupation in the military.
FOX23's Julie Tremmel and photographer Peter Busa made the trip with a group of 38 deserving vets one week ago.
And even though the main mission of the trip is to view the official WWII Memorial in person, it soon became clear that the visit to our nation’s capital includes much more than just a trip there.
While in D.C., the curious vets also had the opportunity to see several key points of interest, some of which evoke the same, if not more painful, memories of the war.
But that’s not something the seniors expected.
After the experience was over, most admitted that when they first boarded the Honor Flight bound for the WWII memorial, they thought of it as a pretty cut-and-dry adventure, a trip to see a picturesque vision of tangible bronze and granite.
But when it was all said and done, many admitted it ended up being the memories they've carried with them all along, images that were buried deep in their minds since the war that they ‘visited,’ while they were there.
For Air Force Pilot Charles Evans, 94, those thoughts were brought back by the seemingly infinite rows of headstones at the Arlington National Cemetery.
“All I wanted to do was fly airplanes. And that's what I did,” Evans said. “I flew thirty combat missions over the Third Reich in a B-24. You think of yourself as a survivor, because so many of my best friends were not survivors."
A somber visit to the Tomb of the Unknowns also left a mark on many of the Capital Region vets.
Some said witnessing the hourly changing of guard at the tomb was a reminder of just how lucky they were to be there, and of their comrades who are not alive to do the same.
“I would like you to say a word about Tommy Wilkinson. He was shot down over Japan in a B-29,” Evans said.
And a stop at the Iwo Jima Memorial struck a particularly painful nerve with Navy veteran John Luczka of Niskayuna.
“It's hard to hold back the tears,” he said his cheeks glistening with fresh streams of water in the sunlight.
“It's very, very, well… what's the word?...It's very emotional,” he said, choking back tears.
Even looking up at the sculpture proved to be an exercise in courage.
The Navy vet dug deep, still, all these decades later, for the strength to press on.
Even though he has comrades who can't.
Even though it hurts.
“Well, what can I say? I’m just I'm glad I'm here. It brings back a lot of memories. A lot of good memories, and quite a few bad ones. But that's the way it goes."
The final feature of the trip was an Honor Flight tradition.
The vets experienced a surprise mail call while sitting in the airport waiting for the plane to arrive.
It was a mail call designed to be just like that special time of day servicemen would look forward to while homesick overseas.
Honor Flight representatives approached the vets’ family members weeks in advance, asking them to write letters to their loved ones, telling them how they feel about their service.
Holding a letter, Air Force veteran Percy Angle said, “This might be from my oldest daughter because that's where she lives,” he said as he pointed to the address.
“And here's a picture of four generations of my family!” fellow Air Force vet Robert Montenaro said to Angle after he ripped an envelope open.
“Oh boy!” Angle replied.
“I think those are priceless,” he said.
“I didn’t expect that,” Army veteran Kenny Graves said.
“I didn’t think anybody knew I was here,” he said.
Some veterans were reminded by an old photo tucked into a letter, just how long the journey since WWII has been.
Holding a black-and-white photo of a handsome airman, Montenaro said, “This is a picture that my daughter sent. It’s of me in 1943,” he said, as he was sobbing.
“It’s a picture of myself in 1943. My daughter sent it to me at the airport."
When asked when he last saw the photo, Montenaro said, “I don't remember. It's been quite a while. She must have stolen it out of my house!” he said, tears still streaming down his face.
Angle laughed, “Daughters do have a way!”
“They do!” Montenaro agreed.
Greg Furlong is the Chair of the Leatherstocking Honor Flight Network.
The trip on April 28th marked his 15th Honor Flight experience.