Santa Claran Chuck Roberts, 92, served as a Staff Sergeant in the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron attached to the 23rd Fighter Group of the 14th Air Force, more commonly known as the Flying Tigers, from 1943 to 1946. He was then called up from the reserves to serve during the Korean War.
Drafted out of college, Roberts, a dual citizen of the United States and New Zealand, spent his career as a mechanical engineer at Lockheed Martin. A husband for 66 years with four children, seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren–he never thought that, at his age, he would ever get to see Washington, D.C. war memorials.
However, Roberts heard a speaker talk about Honor Flight Bay Area, a non-profit dedicated to transporting veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorial dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices, at a Sons in Retirement meeting.
It was through that meeting, Roberts applied and was accepted to take an Honor Flight this April. The whirlwind three-day jaunt was an experience he called “the best thing that has happened to me in my late years.”
According to Mace Weirshauser, a retired Santa Clara Fire Battalion Chief and Honor Flight Bay Area board member, Honor Flights are not only about taking veterans to see their memorial, but giving veterans “the recognition and appreciation that many of them never got.”
Almost immediately, veterans are given a hero’s welcome, starting with their arrival at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport when their plane taxis under a water salute. As they depart the plane, an announcement is made over the loud speaker and travelers, as well as military members who have obtained gate passes, line the walkway, cheering, saluting and shaking the hands of each veteran. Veterans then board a bus to their destination and receive a police escort through D.C. streets. From there, it’s a day and a half of non-stop sightseeing and camaraderie.
“There’s a core group of planners and we coordinate closely with our contacts back in D.C.,” said Weirshauser. “The national headquarters of our organization does a lot of coordination so there are not two hubs at the same place at the same time … The veterans, they don’t pay for a thing, unless they want a t-shirt or something, but the airfare, the hotel, the meals–everything is covered for these men and women.”
Roberts said the most emotional part of the trip was the return to San Francisco, seeing his daughter and daughter-in-law waiting and hearing the bag pipers play. “They had all this fanfare, which was something I had never had before so it was kind of nice.”
Although he said the trip was tiring, Roberts enjoyed meeting the other veterans and seeing the memorials. “I thought I would never get to see them,” he said, “and it was a great experience. I feel very happy that I made the trip.”
Weirshauser said the local chapter of Honor Flight, which relies almost entirely on donations and is ran by volunteers, wouldn’t be as successful as it is without the help of Santa Clara’s American Legion Post 419. Post 419 hosts a flight orientation for passengers and guardians, complete with lunch, drives wheelchairs for all Honor Flight veterans to San Francisco, picks up the wheelchairs when each flight returns and holds a luncheon reunion for every flight four to six weeks after the trip.
Honor Flights are limited to 25 veterans and their guardians, who can be provided if a veteran does not have an escort, at a time. Honor Flight Bay Area schedules flights only in the spring and fall and has completed 12 honor flights since 2014. Many health concerns can be worked around, but the main requirement for traveling is that the veteran has not seen their war memorial. Priority is given to veterans of World War II and Korea, but all veterans are welcome to apply. To get more information or to make a donation, visit www.honorflightbayarea.org.