When Chester “Chet” Lovgren of Clovis auditioned for the Marine Corps Band in boot camp in 1948, his timing couldn’t have been better.
“My first assignment was with the First Marine Division Band, stationed at Camp Pendleton,” Lovgren said. “Prior to 1949, the Marine Band had never marched in the Tournament of Roses Parade, but in 1949 they did.”
Lovgren was among the first Marines to march in the world-renowned event.
On June 28, nearly 70 years later, the trombone-playing former staff sergeant once again found himself in the right place at the right time when he visited the Marine Corps War Memorial along with 64 other veterans taking part in the 10th Central Valley Honor Flight, a program that provides free three-day trips to Washington, D.C., for veterans of conflicts including World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
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In a coincidental twist of fate, the “President’s Own” United States Marine Band was conducting a complete final dress rehearsal for an event at the memorial. Under normal circumstances, no one would be allowed near that part of the grounds during such a rehearsal, but an exception was made for the veterans.
Lovgren, 87, got a front row view of the band and recognized more than a few of the tunes.
“Every one that they played was one that I had previously played,” Lovgren said. “It brought back a lot of memories, especially seeing the age of the boys out there. I thought, ‘Boy, was I once that young?”
The Marine Corps War Memorial was just the first stop of many for the Central Valley Honor Flight participants. The program’s goal is to give veterans “one more tour with honor” to visit the nation’s capital and see the monuments and memorials that recognize their service.
Over the last three years, the Central Valley Honor Flight has transported 667 veterans. Each trip, funded entirely through private donations, costs $180,000 to execute and hundreds of hours of labor from volunteers, including a core team of medical professionals and veteran guardians who go on the trip.
Central Valley Honor Flight President Al Perry said that the flight offers veterans a chance for closure and also lets them know that they are appreciated.
“This trip shows them that residents of the Central Valley, who support us in donations, want to honor them in a way that says, ‘thank you for your service during the war,’” Perry said. “Whether you were in combat or not, you wore the uniform, you served the country and you dealt with those horrific issues in WWII and Korea.”
It’s an emotional trip to say the least. Tears welled in the eyes of veterans as they toured the WWII, Korean and Vietnam War memorials and Arlington Cemetery. Some wore their dog tags; others carried photos of comrades killed or missing in action.
Lovgren was joined by three other veterans from Clovis: Army veteran Raymond Ruiz, 86, Navy Seaman Sammy Louie, 83, and Women’s Air Force Band member Dorothy “Dottie” Proctor, 78.
Proctor, who plays the flute, was one of two women veterans on the trip and was most looking forward to visiting the Women In Military Service For America Memorial, of which she recently became a member.
“From the time that I first heard that they were trying to get a memorial for the women, I thought it was great,” Proctor said. “Because when we got out of the service, we weren’t even eligible for a G.I. bill or anything. We had no benefits, but then later on they came through for us, and to find out that we were actually going to have a memorial, it was really great.”
In a time when a woman was more likely found at home than in the service, Proctor credits her father for encouraging her and her sisters to pursue whatever they liked.
“My father had raised us,” Proctor said. “And he always taught us to be independent and that we could do anything. I think the consensus at that time among parents and relatives was if you were a woman and you didn’t get married and have kids, you had failed what you were supposed to do in life. But he wasn’t like that.”
Proctor’s first time flying was from Fresno to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for training when she was 18. To her, the Honor Flight represented the recognition and greater sense of community that she hadn’t experienced previously.
“It just makes me feel like I’m really part of something,” Proctor said. “I always felt, you know, because I was in the band and after I got out of the band I worked in the hospital, I always felt like I really hadn’t done much. Coming here, I realize that that experience has made me part of who I am.”
Louie, who served in Korea, was accompanied on the trip by his son, Dr. Stanley Louie of Selma. It was the first time that the two had traveled alone together.
Over the course of the three-day trip, the younger Louie pushed his father around in his wheelchair and could be heard sharing all kinds of facts and trivia about each monument and memorial.
“Even though I never served in the armed services, I get a chance to thank someone who has served our country,” Stanley said. “Just to be here, just to be able to walk around with my dad and be his guardian has been the best part.”
Back at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, a crowd of more than a thousand friends, family members and patriotic strangers gathered to greet the servicemen with the warm welcome home many had never received decades before. Tears rolled down the veterans’ cheeks as they took it all in on their way to baggage claim.
Yet, even among the celebrations and hullabaloo, the veterans of what has been called the “greatest generation” are extremely humble — slow to share stories of valor and quick to deflect praise. “Thank you for your service” is met with “It was my honor to serve.”
Donations to the Central Valley Honor Flight can be made online or by mail at Central Valley Honor Flight c/o Central Valley Community Foundation, 5260 N. Palm Ave. #122; Fresno, CA 93704. Make checks payable to Central Valley Community Foundation. For information on donating, volunteering or applying for a veteran, visit www.cvhonorflight.org.