On a spring day that felt more like the thick quilt of summer, Michael Calicchio was in a wheelchair, slowly approaching the World War II memorial, a majestic statement of gratitude for the service of the greatest generation.
A Merchant Marine who went to war as a teenager, the 90-year-old wore dark brown suit slacks with black lace-up, hard-bottom shoes because this moment, this final act of paying respect, demanded the dignity of formal attire.
“No dungarees,” he had insisted to a nurse the day before this journey to Washington, D.C.
Slowed by the march of time and now aided by wheelchairs and canes, a group of 65 local World War II and Korean War veterans visited the memorials that mark their military service on Saturday as part of the Honor Flight South Florida, one of the “hubs’’ of a national network offering all-expense-paid trips for veterans to the nation’s capital.
“The war was very, very bad. A lot of people died, but we ended up freeing the world,” said Calicchio who retired as a captain at age 65 and now lives in Key Largo. “All the people who died, they are the real heroes.”
The last mission, as Honor Flight calls it, allows those who served to visit the memorials — many for the first time.
“The WWII monuments is only about 11 years old. You have 16 million who served,” said Rick Asper, Honor Flight South Florida chairman. “A huge percentage have never seen it and gotten the special thank you that they deserve.”
All in their late 80s and 90s, the veterans came from as far as Boca Raton and the Florida Keys, some rising three hours before sunrise to travel to Miami International Airport. They boarded Eastern Air Lines’ Flight 1941, two-fold in symbolism. The trip marked the first domestic flight of the newly re-launched airline and the flight number denotes the beginning of WWII. The veterans returned on Flight 1945, the last year of the war.
The tour included stops at the Iwo Jima Memorial, formally known as the United States Marine Corps War Memorial, along with Arlington National Cemetery, the World War II Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
After watching the ritual of the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Joseph Newton, 91, sat on a nearby bench describing his family’s military history. Newton had three brothers — all were in the military, with the youngest boy killed in an Air Force plane crash. Newton, a WWII Army veteran, fought in France and Germany.
He came on the trip because he wanted to see history up close. It was the first time he had been apart from his wife in another city since their marriage on Christmas Day, 1950.
“It feels good to be thanked for my service,” said the Fort Lauderdale veteran.
The Honor Flight program began in Springfield, Ohio, 10 years ago by Earl Morse, a physician’s assistant and retired Air Force captain who wanted to bring as many WWII veterans as possible to see their memorial while they are physically able. Honor Flight has since expanded to other communities, called hubs. There are now 130 hubs, including several in Florida.
The program is mostly for WWII veterans but some hubs accept Korean War veterans, particularly those who may not be able to wait for future trips. There are about 1.5 million surviving WWII — about 95,000 in Florida, one of the nation’s largest veteran populations. All octogenarians or nonagenerians, the group is dying at an estimated rate of more than 400 a day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
More than 16 million men and women, many of them still teenagers, served in the war that helped to shape contemporary American life. More than 400,000 died on six of the seven continents.
Every WWII veteran has a war story, some that have faded with time, others that have stood strong against the decades. Most every veteran lost a buddy, dark memories that came trickling or rushing back as the group stood before WWII memorial Saturday.
Calicchio sat in his wheelchair listening to his guardian for the day, Valerie Mazon, recite the numbers: 405,399 dead, second only to the losses of the Civil War.
Back before the war, he said had planned to go to college, but his father’s appendix burst and much of the money went to his care. So Calicchio enlisted in the military. He remembers those first years after the war. He visited his high school in Boston and saw a bulletin board. It was plastered with name after name after name — his friends, fellow students, members of the class of 1941, that never made it back.
Mazon, a nurse at a VA clinic in Key Largo, pointed to the rows of gold stars on the Freedom Wall, each representing the death of 100 soldiers.
“This gives me shivers,” Calicchio said softly. “That is a lot of death.”
The idea for the South Florida hub for the Honor Flight program was born at Arlington National Cemetery in the most solemn of moments, as a U.S. Army veteran visited the graves of fallen comrades.
That veteran, Asper, watched with curiosity as dozens of aging military men and women arrived at the cemetery.
“Here were these buses. They pulled up right in front of me and all these older WWII veterans, were getting off. Someone asked me if I was a volunteer for Honor Flight,” Asper said. “It was the first time I had heard of it. He told me everything about it and asked if I wanted to get involved.”
Asper was not alone. Other veterans have come across the program, too. Honor Flight South Florida hub was launched two years ago with about a core group of about 10 volunteers.
So far, the program has hosted six trips including the one on Saturday which was the first out of Miami. More trips are planned for the fall — the temperatures are too high or too low in the summer and winter seasons for the veterans to be outside for long periods of time. Each trip costs $40,000 to $80,000 but is always free to the veterans.
Despite differences in stories, ages, military branches or wars, there are common threads. The trips all trigger memories. Augustine Fernandez, 92, an Air Force veteran from Pinecrest, was reminded of the 16 months he spent as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down. Michael Cafiero, 89, a Navy veteran from Hollywood, remembers his time aboard the USS Randolph in the South Pacific.
“There’s always a lot of emotion. By and large, this group has not really expressed themselves. They have not talked about the war. Those memories are 60 and 70 years old, buried deep in their heart and soul. On these trips, they do begin to share and talk about those experiences, and in some ways it is cathartic,” Asper said. “The other thing they show is gratitude.’’
The daughter of show business parents, Conni Gordon, 91, seemed born to be on stage. Instead, she became a U.S. Marine, signing the papers just after her 20th birthday.
“I am third-generation military. My grandfather and father were in the Army. I always wanted to serve my country and I always wanted to be a Marine,” said Gordon, one of four women who went on the trip. “I always had this deep appreciation for what it meant to be an American and what it meant to serve my country.”
During the flight home, a “mail call” was to be held — a tradition when veterans received letters from home while serving overseas. MIA employees, local students, even elected officials wrote about 2,600 letters that were distributed to the veterans.
Arriving in Miami on Saturday night, the veterans returned to an authentic homecoming, the kind most never received as young soldiers. There were well-wishers, lots of red, white and blue, a roar of applause and handshakes.
The universal message: Thank you.