Taps cut through the silence, a summoning refrain.
Called to remember, 67 World War II veterans from the San Joaquin Valley held their hands over their hearts Wednesday. They were old men, admiring young soldiers and their perfect drill.
“It brings tears to your eyes to be part of this, and to be a survivor,” said Strathmore resident Lester Doyel, once away from the rigidly enforced solemnity of the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Doyel is now 89. Seventy years ago, he was an enlisted man in the Army Signal Corps, enduring the Philippines and New Guinea campaigns. This week, he received some of his due.
Along with 66 fellow World War II veterans and one veteran from the Vietnam War, Doyel was part of a three-day, all-expenses-paid venture to the nation’s capital. The veterans, and their traveling companions, constituted the sixth Central Valley Honor Flight. The Honor Flight Network is a nonprofit group that brings veterans — with a priority on the rapidly diminishing cadre of those who served during World War II — to Washington to visit the memorials to their service.
The trip included a visit to the National World War II Memorial on the National Mall, stops at other war memorials and, on Wednesday, an hour or so at Arlington National Cemetery. It ended Wednesday with the veterans’ return by chartered flight to Fresno Yosemite International Airport, where they were welcomed home by bagpipes, the Clovis Band, and flag-waving well-wishers.
Two veterans, 89-year-old Visalia resident Douglas Justus and 87-year-old Fresnan Richard Samuelian, presented a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. As they and the other Central Valley veterans arrived, two active-duty Army officers worked their way among them, shaking hands.
“Because of you,” a lieutenant told one veteran, “I am here.”
Many of the veterans maneuvered in wheelchairs, their marching days behind them. All wore red jackets. Every one had a story.
Modesto resident John D’Angelo, 90, flew 22 missions over Europe as an Army Air Corps waist gunner aboard a B-26 Marauder bomber. Evelyn Harp, 90, of Madera served as a Navy WAVE at a stateside hospital. Fresno resident Allen Rasmussen, 93, served as a medic in the Army’s 71st Infantry Division.
“There’s a bunch of old guys like me, who are still around, and are still able to move,” said George Wallet, a 93-year-old retired Fresno pharmacist who served as an Air Corps lab technician.
Since the first Central Valley Honor Flight launched in October 2013, joining other Honor Flights in other parts of the country, the program has expanded its geographic reach. This week’s trip, one of four planned for the year, included veterans from 12 different counties, ranging from Sacramento to San Luis Obispo.
“What has happened is that we’ve become well-known in Central California,” said trip leader Al Perry, who formerly directed the Veterans Administration’s Central California Health Care System.
In between trips, Perry helps raise the money needed to pay for the charter flight, hotel and other expenses that totaled about $170,000 for the week. The guardians that accompany each veteran kick in $1,000 each.
“This is something a person in his whole life might not otherwise see,” said Alfred Bland, an 89-year-old Clovis resident who served as a machinists mate aboard the USS Louisville.