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‘Honor Flight’ trips treat heroes

By Staff | Oct 23, 2014

Collier County Honor Flight’s Mission 4 departs Southwest International Airport with 50 WWII and Korean War veterans from Collier and Lee counties Saturday at 8:45 a.m. The one-day trip to Washington, D.C. includes visits to the World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iwo Jima, and Women’s War Memorials.

The non-profit Honor Flight Network was established for the purpose of expressing a nation’s gratitude to U.S. war veterans for their service. Donations by individuals, businesses and other organizations pay for the chartered airline flights to Washington, D.C., ground transportation, three meals and snacks, a wheel chair and a personal, volunteer caretaker to escort each veteran to the memorials that are dedicated to them and to their fallen comrades.

Priority is given to veterans of World War II and to those who are terminally ill.

Robert D. Hemenway, former Radar Man Second Class on the Destroyer Escort USS Lloyd, was aboard the Mission 3 flight this past Sept.13.

Hemenway was 17 and a senior in high school when he joined the Navy in 1943. Trained in the new and highly secret radar technology, Hemenway worked in the ship’s Control Information Center where coded messages relative to everything from the ship’s direction to gun mount orders were transmitted.

“As a Destroyer Escort, we protected convoys in the north Atlantic, then in north Africa. Later, we sailed to the Pacific as an Attack Personnel Destroyer where we did 12 assault landings.

“When our guys hit the beach, it’s not screaming and hollering, ‘Let’s go, guys!’ If you’ve done invasions, you become quiet, scared. The Japanese were ferocious fighters. They’d swim out to a ship with dynamite and climb up the anchor rope. And there were always Kamikazes. I’ve seen parts of (Kamikazes’) bodies blown against the wall.

“The first battle turned you into a killer. You got this hate because they’re coming at you, trying to kill you. So you kill people and when you get out, you acclimate, but you never get over it. You can never forget hard combat, the guys you lost. After the war, I could never sleep with my back to the door.”

Now 88 years old, Hemenway says that teenage boys were signing up with their older brothers’ birth certificates.

“A 16-year-old was driving our Higgins landing craft. A 14-year-old was a gun loader. In the first battle, he jumped down from the gun mount and ran screaming, ‘I want to go home.’ When the skipper found out how old he was, they flew him out of there.”

In the Pacific, one invasion followed another, the promise of R & R in Australia never fulfilled.

“Just one more, guys,” their skipper would promise. “We got ’em on the run.” “Liberty,” Hemenway smiled, “was 100 yards of beach, palm trees, and a baseball if we were lucky, three cans of beer and a pack of cigarettes and two hours.”

They were too far “in the front” to see a USO show, but they listened to Tokyo Rose play the latest hits.

“She’d say, ‘Now here’s the latest Bing Crosby and while you boys on the USS Lloyd are listening, your wife is probably dancing to this music with your neighbor,’ and that would rattle us. And it was true. A lot of guys got Dear John letters. I saw one guy on the ship crying. I asked him what was the problem and he said, here, read my letter, and it was a Dear John.

The USS Lloyd’s 13th invasion was to be the Japanese mainland.

“We believed that none of us would survive.” But with the dropping of two atom bombs, the war ended and the boys came home.

More than 16 million men and women served in World War II; fewer than 950,000 are still living.

“There were 213 officers and crew aboard my ship,” Hemenway said. “I am one of five who are left.”

“When we came back from the Pacific-after we’d seen so much combat-and we came into San Diego harbor, we saw a humongous big billboard that said, ‘Well Done. Welcome Home.’ That was the only thank you we got, until the Honor Flight.

“Everybody kept telling me I should go, but I said, naaaa” Hemenway gave a dismissive shake of his head. “But finally I said yes and let me tell you” Hemenway had to pause for a moment to steady his voice, “if you write this article, you tell ’em it’s a must. They really should go. From the time we got off the plane in Baltimore…there were three busloads of uspolice, state troopers with gumballs, sirens goingdrove non-stopthrough red lightsthey blew whistles and traffic partedwe went non-stop to the war memorial.

“It rained all day, but we didn’t mind. It could’ve snowed. We were there for the memories.”

Hemenway explained that each veteran is assigned a caretaker who pushes him or her in a wheelchair throughout the day-long event.

“Honor Flights were there from other states. New York, Michigan, Wisconsin. You never saw so many wheel chairs.

“I was in a line at a memorial and a little boy asked his father, ‘What kind of cap is he wearing?’ and his father said, ‘He was in WWII and you should shake his hand and say thank you,’ so the little boy shook my hand and said, ‘Mister, thank you for your service,’ and God, that was” Hemenway faltered, dropping and shaking his head. “This little kidI love my country so much,” he whispered.

Honor Flight volunteers pick each veteran up at his or her home before daylight on the morning of the flight; the chartered airplane returns them to RSW nearly 24 hours later. Hemenway described the return.

“On the long flight home, the captain said, ‘There’s mail call for everybody.’ The flight organizers had gotten hold of family and told them to write us letters and little school kids wrote thank-you letters. I must have had 50 or 60 letters and I choked up. These little kids saying thank you”

When he could speak again, Hemenway urged vets to take the Honor Flight to experience the grand finale.

“Your day will end with a memory you will take with you the rest of your life.” As he described the last event of the day, Hemenway had difficulty managing his voice. “You’re at the airport and now it’s midnight. You get off the plane in a wheelchair, and one by one, you start through the airport. And there were 3,000 people, maybe morelittle kids, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, army and air corps lined up in uniformsalutingand bagpipes, barbershop quartetsrows upon rows of people taking pictures, saying ‘Thank you.’ Hemenway wept. “It was so marvelous and touching it was the second thank you I was able to have in my lifetime”

Radar man Hemenway has done his part. He asks of us simply that we “Take care of our country.”

If you would like to welcome the veterans home from Honor Flight 4, you are requested to be at the main terminal at the airport in Fort Myers at 11:15 p.m. on Oct. 25. If you wish to volunteer, donate or learn more about this event and the Honor Flight program, please call 239-777-9295 or visit www.collierhonorflight.org.