April 8, 2013

'Honor flight' takes aging Maine vets to visit D.C. war memorials

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.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Maine state Rep. Lisa Villa, D-Harrison, talks Sunday with World War II veteran Bill Quackenbush, of Litchfield, at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Va. Quackenbush served as a gunner’s mate on a transport used by the Navy in the Normandy invasion.

Photo by Bill Clark

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Veteran Dorothea Washburn, of Harrison, points to the Maine pillar Sunday as the Honor Flight New England tour arrives at the World War II Memorial in Washington. Washburn served as a Navy storekeeper 1st Class at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Photo by Bill Clark

Additional Photos Below

FOR MORE INFIORMATION on the Honor Flight New England program, go to www.honorflightnewengland.org or call (877) 992-8387. Donations can be made to Honor Flight New England, P.O. Box 16287, Hooksett, N.H., 03106.

"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:


On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC


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Additional Photos

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Richard Leighton of Westbrook stares up at the name of his brother, Sgt. Raymond Leighton, engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Sunday. Leighton, who is terminally ill with cancer, was able to visit the memorial for the first time with Honor Flight New England, a nonprofit that flies veterans of World War II and other terminally ill veterans to Washington for free.

Photo by Kevin Miller / Washington Bureau Chief

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Overcome with emotion, veteran Richard Leighton of Westbrook (at center in ballcap) hands over a memorial wreath bearing the name of his late brother, Sgt. Raymond Leighton, to a member of the honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on Sunday. Sgt. Leighton was killed in action in Vietnam. Coordinators of the program Honor Flight New England surprised Leighton and his son, Rick (at left) with the wreath-laying ceremony during a trip to Washington, D.C.

Photo by Kevin Miller / Washington Bureau Chief


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