Tears filled Vern Battin’s eyes as he remembered the most poignant moment during his Honor Flight to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“There were a lot of children there with spring break. The children had all prepared a note to hand to us,” he said, then paused as he choked up with emotion. “A little girl came up to me and asked, ‘Can I have a picture with you?’ Kids get to me.”
He said the children then thanked all the WWII vets for their service.
The Honor Flight is all about memory.
The memories of WWII veterans like Battin, who survived the Great Depression and then the war in the Pacific in a ship’s boiler room. The ones who made it home, carried with them the memory of those who did not.
And it’s about ensuring those children have their memories of the war that changed the world — at such a terrible price. Their encounter with a veteran in a wheelchair made that complicated history come alive.
Battin said he served as a water tender third class on a Navy supply ship in the Pacific theater. “We went as far as China by the Russian border to deliver supplies,” he said.
When he came home, he moved to California from his native Illinois to work in the printing industry — and promptly met a “beautiful California girl.”
“We had 62 years together,” he said. “We still loved each other to the day she died. She bore me two sons.”
Battin would not have known about the Honor Flight if his daughter-in-law hadn’t read about it in a newspaper.
The Honor Flight program started after the completion of the WWII memorial in Washington, D.C. in 2004. Two sons of WWII veterans wanted to make sure veterans could afford to visit the war memorial in Washington, D.C. and so founded the Honor Flight Network in 2007.
Arizona started its own chapter of Honor Flight Arizona a year later.
In 10 years, Honor Flight Arizona has flown 1,900 veterans to Washington, D.C. for a three-day experience, including Battin.
The 92-year-old WWII vet said the whole experience honored his service better than he could have imagined. “We had 26 veterans on the flight and 29 caregivers, including medical staff,” he said.
The Honor Flight volunteers plied the veterans with banquets, top-notch accommodations and comfortable travel arrangements.
“We stayed at a lovely hotel,” he said. “We went back and forth on that bus to D.C.”
He said he met a Filipino man who had been a chief petty officer in the Navy.
His roommate was a pilot that not only served in WWII, but also during Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs crisis.
“One of the last planes he was flying was the plane that dropped hydrogen bombs,” said Battin.
“When President Kennedy told the Russians to remove the missile silos, my roommate flew the hydrogen bomb over Cuba. I’m so glad he didn’t have to drop that bomb.”
As Battin spoke about the Honor Flight, his buddies at the Pine Senior Dining Room waited for a break in the conversation to call for Battin to tell some of their favorite stories.
“He’s got a lot of stories — he worked in the boiler room,” said one.
Battin then told the story of a freshly minted officer sent down to learn how the boiler room worked.
“We burned crude oil and it had to be heated before it started the burners on the boiler,” said Battin. “You had long pipes and that oil would just be shot in like a water pistol. It was under pressure and 90 degrees hot.”
Battin said the officer ignored advice to double-check every connection. When the high-pressure oil coursed through the pipe, it exploded.
“He went tearing up to the engine room yelling, ‘Look at my uniform! They did this purposely!’ he complained.
“But the engineering officer told him to get back down there and do it right.”
But his lunchroom buddies weren’t done with Battin.
“On his way back (from the Honor Flight) he told somebody he leads the choir in the church,” said Battin’s buddy. “A stewardess had Vern get up to lead ‘God Bless America.’”
“That kind of startled me,” Battin said. “She got on the loudspeaker and asked where I was sitting. She said, “Lead the plane in ‘God Bless America.’” I thought, ‘How do you pick a key?’”
Everyone sang with him, not caring about the key — just another in a long string of memories.
“It was just one nice memory after another,” he said. “I ended up on a short little TV blurb the night we left. The reporter asked, ‘Can I ask you a question? What is your interest in the WWII memorial?’ I said, ‘My interest was paying tribute to the people that were involved in WWII that didn’t come home. I did come home.’”
But he remembers them still.
As those kids will remember him.
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