The Washington Post

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Melvin Rector long carried Britain in his heart after he helped defend it during World War II, but 70 years passed without him setting foot in the country.

The 94-year-old finally decided to leave his home in Barefoot Bay, Fla., to visit Britain this month.

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans conducts a travel program through which interested parties can visit certain sites of the war. He signed up for one, in hopes of visiting the Royal Air Force station Snetterton Heath, in Norfolk.

He served there with the 96th Bomb Group in 1945 as a radio operator and gunner on B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, flying eight combat missions over Germany during the spring of the war’s final year.

On four of those missions, his plane came under heavy enemy fire. One almost proved catastrophic, and the plane returned to base with holes dotting its wings.

Rector was excited for his return to the place that made this great plane famous.

“He planned it for like the last six months,” Darlene O’Donnell, Rector’s stepdaughter, said of the trip, according to the Florida Today newspaper. “He couldn’t wait to go.”

Over the Atlantic, the pilot of his American Airlines flight summoned him to the cockpit so that the two could take a photograph together. “The flight attendant stopped us and said, ‘Mr. Rector, the captain would like to meet you,'” Susan Jowers told Florida Today.

She had become almost a daughter to Rector after serving as his guardian during a 2011 Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., and she accompanied him on this tour.

On May 6, Rector set foot on British soil for the first time in 71 years. The group visited RAF Uxbridge in the London borough of Hillingdon.

Rector toured the Battle of Britain Bunker, an underground command center where fighter plane operations were directed during D-Day.

After climbing back into the sunlight, he told Jowers he felt dizzy. She grabbed one of his arms, and a stranger grabbed the other.

There, just outside the bunker where Winston Churchill famously said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” Rector died quietly. “He walked out of that bunker like his tour was done,” Jowers said.

Sandy Vavruich, Rector’s daughter, said it’s how he would have liked to die, even though he sadly never made it to RAF Snetterton Heath.

“He couldn’t have asked for a better way to go,” she told Florida Today. “It was quick and painless. He had just gotten to see two planes, and he passed away between them.”

Rector’s remains were repatriated to the United States on Tuesday.

“He completed his final mission,” Jowers said.