WASHINGTON – After Richard Leighton was diagnosed with incurable cancer, the Westbrook resident made a “bucket list” with one deeply personal wish: to see his brother’s name on the nation’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Leighton got that wish Sunday — and so much more.
Unbeknownst to him or his son, Rick, the organizers of an “honor flight” program for aging veterans arranged for the pair to participate in a formal wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And on the wreath was Sgt. Raymond Leighton’s name.
“When I saw his name on the white ribbon as it blew in the wind, I fell apart,” Richard Leighton said afterward, his voice faltering.
Giving a terminally ill veteran a chance to honor his long-lost brother at one of the nation’s most sacred military sites is one example of the ways that the coordinators of Honor Flight New England say they try to give back.
Since 2009, the New Hampshire-based nonprofit has paid to fly more than 700 veterans to Washington to visit the memorials dedicated to them and others who have served.
The vast majority of the participating veterans served in World War II, members of the “greatest generation” whose numbers are rapidly shrinking. And for many, it is their first — and likely last — trip to see the memorials in the nation’s capital.
“This is very impressive. I had no idea,” said 92-year-old Franklin Flanders, of Norway, Maine, as he strolled around the World War II Memorial with three generations of his family, who had driven down from Maine.
“I had heard about it and I’ve seen pictures of it, but it is nothing like being down here and seeing it,” said Flanders, who served in the Army’s demolition units during the grueling war in the Pacific.
Eighteen of the 19 veterans involved in Sunday’s trip were World War II veterans. And it didn’t take long for the other visitors to notice the crew from Maine in “WWII Vet” hats or other military apparel.
A small crowd began to gather and greet the honorees as soon as they began disembarking from the bus. The parade of wheelchairs drew even more attention as it converged in front of the “Freedom Wall” — containing 4,000-plus gold stars, each representing 100 American lives lost during the war — for pictures and a taps ceremony.
Afterward, strangers stopped to shake hands and talk to the veterans, many of whom appeared as moved by those gestures of thanks as they were by the memorials themselves.
“What thrilled both of us was how many people stopped and said, ‘Thank you for your service,’” said Dorothea Washburn, a Harrison resident who served as a storekeeper and record keeper in the Navy Reserves during World War II. “That gets me here,” she said, patting her heart.
The Honor Flight program began in 2005 in Ohio and now has affiliates around the country. Participating veterans do not pay for anything during the trip, although the “guardian” who accompanies them throughout the day must pay his or her own way. Every trip has more volunteers than veterans.
Joe Byron of Hooksett, N.H., started the New England chapter of the program in 2009 after being inspired by the World War II veterans that he encountered while working in law enforcement. With the ranks of those veterans shrinking rapidly, Byron said he wanted to give back something more. Sunday’s trip was Honor Flight New England’s 26th, but the first one originating from Maine.
“It’s just been an incredible experience and extremely humbling,” Byron said in an interview last week.
In addition to the World War II Memorial, the group visited the memorials for the Vietnam War, the Korean War and the battle of Iwo Jima, plus the Lincoln Memorial and the Navy Memorial. They also witnessed both the wreath-laying and the changing-of-the-guard ceremony at Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, also called the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Nunzio Biondello, an 88-year-old Litchfield resident, brought along old photos and copies of paperwork from his experiences as a radio operator on one of the LCI — landing craft, infantry — ships that ferried troops close to shore on Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day. His ship managed to land all of its troops despite having to retract and find an alternate landing zone while under enemy fire.
Later that evening, a lone German bomber dropped five bombs around his ship, but none connected.
For Biondello, Sunday’s visit was his first to the World War II Memorial and a moving experience all around.
“I loved this,” he said of the trip.
Back at the Navy Memorial, Bill Quackenbush, of Litchfield, stopped to take a picture of the bronze plaque depicting the type of LCT ship — the larger landing craft transport used by the Navy — on which he served as a gunner’s mate during the Normandy invasion. Like many veterans of the war, he wasn’t seeking recognition for the role he played.
“We had a job to do and we did it the best we could,” Quackenbush said.
“If not for them, society as we know it today would be very different,” said state Rep. Lisa Villa, D-Harrison, who accompanied Quackenbush and helped organize Sunday’s first-ever Honor Flight trip from Maine.
As with all Honor Flight New England trips, Sunday’s excursion was filled with unexpected moments for the veterans, such as a police escort to the Portland International Jetport, greeters at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the motorcycle escort to Washington. An active-duty Navy rear admiral originally from Maine was among those who greeted the group at the World War II Memorial.
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Rick Leighton and Byron of Honor Flight located where Raymond Leighton’s name was inscribed on the black marble wall. A small crowd of strangers gathered as Richard Leighton watched his son rub a pencil over a sheet of paper placed atop the name to make an etching for his father.
Moments earlier, as his son wheeled him toward the memorial, Richard Leighton was still overcome by the day’s powerful emotions.
“I have a ‘bucket list’ and this was on it,” he said.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:
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