Joseph Cluff, 80, of Clovis was not sure he wanted to go on the Honor Flight.
“I was very impressed,” he said after the three-day, whirlwind journey in Washington, D.C. “It was a great experience. I’d go back if they’d let me.”
Cluff was one of 66 veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War who went on the 13th Central Valley Honor Flight to the nation’s capital last week. The 154 people on the chartered MD80 jet included guardians, medical staff, a safety team and media personnel.
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The Honor Flight landed at Baltimore/Washington Airport (BWI) around 5:30 p.m. on April 24, an hour behind schedule. Due to weather conditions, the flight was forced to land in Wichita, Kansas to refuel before continuing to BWI — a first for the Central Valley Honor Flight.
One of the most popular attractions for the veterans was the U.S. Marine Memorial — the statue of the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising during World War II.
It wasn’t uncommon to see the veterans taking pictures, posing as though they were holding the flag alongside the Marines in the statue.
During their whirlwind, three-day journey to the different monuments and memorials, veterans occasionally enjoyed sitting on a Harley Davidson motorcycle ridden by officer Steven Jones — the head of the police escort that accompanied the three Honor Flight buses.
Jones could be seen in front of the front bus (dubbed the blue bus), parting traffic “like the sea.” At one point during the third and final day of the Honor flight visit, Jones rode his motorcycle with no hands, waving traffic off to either side of the crowded freeway.
After a stop at the Iwo Jima memorial, the buses took the veterans to the World War II memorial, where a traditional group photo was taken. This is also where 85-year-old Air Force veteran Frank Dittrich’s favorite moment happened.
“I loved seeing all the kids there,” said Dittrich, a Clovis man whose 28 years in the military included tours in both Korea and Vietnam. “Getting to talk to them, and they all came up and said ‘thank you for your service,’ that was really something.”
The ‘kids’ were mostly high school-aged students on field trips. Groups of them formed around the veterans at the World War II memorial, listening wide-eyed and smiling to the stories the veterans had to tell about their time in the war.
There was a very special moment at the World War II memorial for this honor flight. World War II veteran Roy Haury of Patterson was given the Purple Heart that his brother — who died in combat in World War II — had earned. The precious award had gone missing, until a family member found it tucked away in a trunk in their closet. It was given to the Honor Flight team and presented by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) to Haury during the trip. There was not a dry eye during the presentation of the award.
The buses drove past the Navy memorial, but veterans were unable to get off the bus due to the presence of another Honor Flight from another city that made parking impossible. Donald VonBerg, 87, of Clovis was looking forward to this memorial.
“I’m a Navy guy,” VonBerg said. “I was disappointed, though, because our memorial didn’t look very impressive from the bus.”
The Korean War memorial was a favorite of Howard Gatlin, a 79-year- old Clovis veteran.
“I served in the Navy in Korea,” Gatlin said. “The memorial was really sobering.”
“Sobering and impressive,” said VonBerg, who served on the U.S.S. Hamul, a destroyer tender during the Korean War. The ship provided maintenance and support for destroyers; VonBerg’s job was providing dental service for the crews on destroyers.
At the Korean war memorial, a Central Valley Honor Flight first happened: a group photo was taken at the memorial. This was to honor veteran Robert “Bob” Marienau, who was scheduled to go on the trip but passed away in January. The group took a photo with a picture of him. This photo was then given to Marienau’s wife when the Honor Flight returned to Fresno.
The visit to the Vietnam memorial held special significance for Mark Hopkins, the trip leader. His father served in Vietnam and attended the trip as a guardian.
“Seeing him get to see his memorial — that was tough for me,” Hopkins said. “The Honor Flight has really been an opening point for me and my dad. It’s let him open up to me about his time in the war.”
The third and final day of the Honor Flight started at Arlington National Cemetery with the Changing of the Guard ceremony promptly at 9 a.m.
During the ceremony, soldiers walked silently in front of the tomb. However, toward the end, as the soldier who was being relieved of duty was exiting, the commanding officer scuffed his heels on the pavement. This caused some confusion among the gathered veterans, which was later explained on the bus.
“When they scuff their heels, it’s a sign of respect,” said Hopkins. “It’s the only way they [the soldiers] can communicate with you guys [the veterans]. It’s their way of saluting you.”
The Air Force memorial was most meaningful to Dittrich and Charles Terrazas, 91, also of Clovis
Terrazas said he wanted to fly when given the option of which branch of service to enter during World War II. “They said I didn’t have the qualifications for it, so they sent me to radio school.”
During his service in Korea and Vietnam, Dittrich was an avionics specialist in the Air Force, and calls himself “Air Force through and through.”
As the Honor flight participant prepared to fly home from Washington, their plane was loaded before everyone was informed the pilot had fallen ill and the flight was delayed. Everyone was deplaned, waiting near gate D22 at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport for news.
There was talk that the new flight would not leave until the next day, but thankfully another pilot was found. He and his first officer flew in from Orlando to make the flight, but it would be a five-hour delay.
Naturally, the response was to have a pizza party.
“When was the last time you saw 131 people have a pizza party in the middle of an airport?” Hopkins laughed.
After five hours filled with laughter, storytelling and a lot of people napping, the MD80 jet was filled with veterans once more, making its way to Fresno Yosemite International Airport. It was a straight flight, touching down about 9:30 p.m. Fresno time on April 26.
Though late, the flight was greeted with an airport filled with people holding signs and waving American flags to welcome the veterans home.
“Most of these guys didn’t get a ticker-tape parade when they came home,” Hopkins said. “That’s what this is about: them getting the thank-you they deserve.”
Other Clovis veterans who went on this Honor Flight were: Charles Jarocki (86, Air Force, Korean War), Vernon Jenkins (89, Air Force, Korean War), Karl Keller (83, Navy, Korean War) and Ronald Sylvester (82, Navy and Marines, Korean War).
The Honor Flight Network was founded in 2004 with the mission of taking veterans to see their memorials in Washington. Central Valley Honor Flight started its chapter in 2013 and has organized 13 honor flights, taking a total of 866 veterans to see their memorials.
The Honor Flight is funded completely by individuals, not by large corporations. The flight is already fully funded for October this year, but can always use help. To donate — or to find out how to participate — visit Central Valley Honor Flight’s website at www.cvhonorflight.org.