World War II, Korea Veterans Take Honor Flight to Remember

Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, just about 800,000 remain today. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 500 more pass away each day. That means that every three minutes, another piece of living history vanishes.

On Saturday May 2, 80 Connecticut World War II and Korean War veterans took an Honor Flight organized by the nonprofit American Warrior, founded by former Norwich State Representative Christopher Coutu in 2007.

Saturday’s flight was the final large Honor Flight for our state since the numbers of World War II veterans alive in Connecticut have dwindled to roughly 10,000.

“Our WWII veterans are moving on to a better place,” Coutu said. “This is their final ‘hooah.’ This is the final flight of their life. To see something they've waited for seven decades to see.”

Each one of the 80 veterans on Saturday’s flight had a remarkable story to share.

One-hundred-year-old Lawrence Thomas was an Air Force mechanic. An African American, he served in a time when the American military was racially segregated, deploying to Germany, France and Africa. Today, he lives at the Veterans Home in Rocky Hill and this was his first trip back to Washington since he was stationed nearby at Andrews Air Force Base as a young man.

Donald Gebhardt, 93, served as an Air Force radar repairman and served in the Pacific theatre -- in Okinawa, Guam and Saipan. He was hoping for a chance reunion with a fellow unit member in Washington, so he brought a scrapbook of old photos, mementoes and records from his military service with him. Lovingly compiled by his late wife, it includes family photos of his own father serving in World War I, and historical souvenirs like flyers dropped from American warships over Japan.

Robert Treat, 83, of East Haven and Jim Burns, 84, of Avon, were joined at the hip throughout the trip, and for good reason. They’ve been friends for life. They attended Newington High School together, got drafted together and went to Army boot camp together before shipping off to the Korean War – though they were separated during deployment.

“The next time I saw him was Japan, on the way home,” Jim recalled. “Bob was the best man at my wedding, and when he got married, I was the best man at his wedding.”

Richard Donahue, of North Haven, served in the Korean War as a medic with a National Guard rifle platoon – 224th Infantry Regiment, 40th Infantry Division. At the Korean War memorial, he gazed, transfixed, at the statue of a medic -- a face etched in steel staring back at him.

“I look at those men in here, and I’ve been out on those patrols,” he said. “When you get out, you know, you still carry some of that with you.”

World War II veteran and former United States Senator Bob Dole is 91 years old now and moves slower these days, a combination of age and his old war wounds, yet there he sat in the bright sun, not moving, until he personally greeted every single veteran de-boarding our bus.

“Whether WW2, Korea, Vietnam, we’re all part of our big fraternity,” he said. “And I know when some of these men go down into the memorial, they probably shed a tear or two thinking about when they were younger and what they were doing, what they did in the service.”

Gaby Nitkin, 92, was the sole female veteran on the Honor Flight. She served in England in the British Army, and met her husband – an American G.I. – during the war. After the surrender, they married and moved to New York. Today, she lives in a retirement community in Redding. Gaby is both humble and feisty.

“I don’t think of myself firstly as a World War II vet,” she said, deflecting praise.

But she was gracious, smiling with the many people who stopped her for photos at the World War II memorial. And she was touched by what she saw.

“You get a sense of the strength of America. It’s tremendous,” she said.

It was a busy day with many sights to see, including the World War II, Korean War, Iwo Jima and Air Force memorials.

Everywhere we went, the veterans were treated like celebrities. Fire trucks sprayed water cannons, saluting our airplane at Bradley Airport. A marching band played as they arrived at Reagan International Airport. All day long, people stopped to shake their hands and say, “Thank you for your service.”

On the flight home, there was a final mail call, with each veteran receiving a packet stuffed full of handwritten letters and cards from students from across America. There were also letters from their family members. Save for the sound of shuffling papers, the plane was silent as the veterans read. Some were weeping.

At the end of the day, Leonard Caya, of Willimantic, was overwhelmed to see more than 500 people at Bradley Airport for a homecoming ceremony, cheering, waving American flags and clapping.

“I couldn’t believe everything I saw. Especially when I come here and see this…” he said, trailing off in thought. His whole family was there to welcome him home, one last time and Leonard could not contain his emotion.

“This is the first time my family has ever seen me cry,” he said.

I asked him why it touched him so deeply and he gestured to his family members standing behind his wheelchair as tears streamed down his face.

“It was worth fighting for,” he said. “And this is why we do it all.”

To date, American Warrior has flown more than 1,000 veterans to Washington, D.C. to see their war memorials. The private charter flights are funded entirely through donations.

To learn more about American Warrior and to donate or volunteer, visit

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