Alfred Kurtz, of Elizabethtown, was one of 18 World War II veterans on the inaugural North Country Honor Flight to the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. Kurtz served for three years in the U.S. Army and spent most of that time in a stockade in Naples, Italy, where he did guard duty as a military police officer.
As the sun rose over Vermont’s Green Mountains on Saturday, May 18, 18 World War II veterans left Plattsburgh to visit the National World War II Memorial in Washington D.C.
The trip marked the inaugural flight of North Country Honor Flight, a non-profit organization dedicated to honoring World War II veterans by taking them to the memorial.
Hundreds showed up at the Old Base Oval in Plattsburgh for a ceremony to see the veterans off.
More than a dozen uniformed troops, who stood at attention as the veterans and their guardians boarded the bus, were also on hand.
The crowd cheered and held up signs—”God bless WWII vets,” “One last mission”— as the bus pulled away at 5:30 a.m., led by a motorcade of motorcycles including the Plattsburgh Harley Owners Group, Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, the Patriot Guard and the Legion Riders.
The procession snaked through Plattsburgh as it headed for Interstate 87 and the Albany Airport, all the while passing crowds of people waving flags and saluting.
The WWII veterans on the first North Country Honor Flight
- Napolean J. Light, U.S. Army, Peru
- Robert O. Brooks, U.S. Navy, Plattsburgh
- Merwin I. Cowles, U.S. Marine Corps, Plattsburgh
- Francis G. Delumyea, U.S. Army, Keeseville
- Gerald B. Edwards, Army Air Corps, Keeseville
- Henry L. Vincent, U.S. Army, Upper Jay
- Herbert G. Wemette, U.S. Navy, Keeseville
- William H. Thompson, U.S. Navy, Willsboro
- Andrew J. Juneau, U.S. Navy, Champlain
- Ralph P. Filion, U.S. Navy, Plattsburgh
- John B. West, U.S. Navy, Plattsburgh
- Kenneth D. Mitchell, Army Air Corps, Plattsburgh
- Rodney L. Wright, U.S. Army, Rouses Point
- Paul E. Gibeau, Army AIir Corps, Plattsburgh
- Robert L. Savarie, U.S. Army, Olmsteadville
- William T. Lowe, Army Air Corps, Plattsburgh
- Ernest S. Clifford, Army Air Corps, Crown Point
- Alfred Henry Kurtz, U.S. Army, Elizabethtown
More motorcyclists joined the growing parade at every exit, and people waited on overpasses to celebrate as the veterans rode by.
On board, the veterans were feeling the excitement, too.
There was a smile on every wide-eyed face, and many stood to watch as motorcycles zipped by, leaving tracers of red, white and blue in their wake.
“This is so much more than I expected,” said U.S. Navy veteran Ralph P. Filion as he peered over the seat in front of him to watch a motorcyclist pass the bus, his long gray beard plastered against his face.
“A lot of us don’t talk because it brings back bad memories. As many years ago as it happened, it’s never far away.”
Filion, who entered the Navy on May 18, 1944, and received an honorable discharge March 10, 1946, spent time on a destroyer in the Atlantic Ocean.
His ship’s job was to escort a convoy of 100 American ships to Reykjavík, Iceland, in submarine infested waters.
“We had to destroy the subs before they could get to the fleet,” Filion said.
Submarines weren’t the only threat, though.
“There was one time when we hit an iceberg, and it put a big split in the ship,” Filion said. “That was close. It put a crack in the bottom and we began taking on water.”
They made it back to Virginia, where the ship was welded and sent back out.
Filion also served in Panama and the South Pacific
“We were never told what was going on,” Filion said. “I don’t know how many days we were on the water (in the South Pacific). We were waiting for the Enola Gay.”
The Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, was flown by Col. Paul Tibbets. The plane is famous for dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
“I had switched ships from a destroyer to an assault ship,” Filion said. “We had 3000 marines aboard when they dropped the atomic bomb. When that happened we went into a bay in Japan.”
Filion said that, once they surrendered, the Japanese troops were good to the American troops.
“The war was over,” Filion said. “They fought a war just like we did, I guess.”
Veterans on Honor Flights are accompanied by guardians, volunteers who make sure they have a safe trip.
Filion’s guardian was his daughter, Michelle Filion-Schon, who drove to Plattsburgh from Pottstown, Pa., to join her father on the flight.
“I think this could very well be the best day of both of our lives,” Filion-Schon said. “I’m so blessed to be there with him when he sees the memorial for the first time. This is the first time he’s ever been appreciated as a veteran.”
William H. Thompson, who also served with the U.S. Navy in World War II, enlisted in Albany on his 17th birthday in 1944.
After completing boot camp in Geneva, he was sent to San Diego for amphibious training, which meant he would be transporting troops for ships to land during battle.
“The USS is Navy, and the SS is merchant marines—half Army and half Marines,” Thompson said. “The Army we dumped off in Okinawa, and the marines went to Hiroshima.”
Thompson said that, due to circumstances he was unaware of, his company was dropped off in Hiroshima too early.
“We weren’t supposed to be there yet, so we had to stay far enough off shore so we couldn’t be hit,” Thompson said. “Eventually we picked up a hospital ship and stayed there for a few days until it went back to Hiroshima. That’s when all hell broke loose.”
When Thompson finally finished in 1946, he had seen 18 months of sea duty in the Pacific.
As the bus pulled up to the Albany Airport, Thompson went silent as he saw the hundreds of people who were gathered there, waiting to greet the veterans.
His silence was borne of appreciation.
“This is really something,” he said. “I feel honored.”
Each veteran exited the bus with his guardian, and each pair was met with a wave of enthusiasm and, as Thompson had indicated, appreciation.
They were treated like movie stars walking down the red carpet or, more appropriately, they were treated like heroes who sacrificed their lives for the safety of others.
Thompson’s guardian, Plattsburgh State student Yohanna Mueller, was also moved by the turnout.
“The fact that we’re honoring veterans in such a way shows me that Americans still care,” Mueller said. “It’s not political, it’s not about money or about what’s right or wrong. It’s just about what people want to do personally.”
In Albany, the North Country Honor Flight veterans were joined by the Leatherstocking Honor Flight of Cobbleskill, NY.
Together, the two groups brought about 55 veterans to Washington D.C.
But before they boarded the plane, they were treated to a short send-off ceremony that included a live Army band and several speeches.
“It’s heartwarming to know that so many people stll care,” said North Country Honor Flight Guardian Coordinator Kimberly Bouissey as she fought back tears. “These veterans haven’t been forgotten.”
For a video of the May 18 honor flight visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgUTWIOs8XQ