It was the final day of the Central Valley Honor Flight, a three-day trip aiming to take World War II veterans to the nation’s capital to tour its many war memorials. Turlock veteran David Sargis, 89, was walking through the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery before he bumped into a fellow veteran.
It was 92-year-old Gene Brengetto of Fresno.
“He looked at me and I looked at him and we talked a bit about our time in the service,” Sargis said. “Before I knew it, he stopped and said, ‘wait — you were aboard the what?’”
Sargis and Brengetto found that they shared a special bond: During World War II, both veterans were aboard the USS Lexington, a Navy ship that saw many battles throughout the Pacific.
Brengetto, a gunner on a torpedo bomber, remembers his time on the USS Lexington with surprising fondness. He and his comrades would fly off the USS Lexington to bomb various islands in the Pacific.
“All I did was fly off of it, otherwise, we just sat in the radio room on the ship and relaxed and ate until our flight time,” Brengetto said. “Then we get on our plane, take off, and come back — if we were lucky.”
It was Sargis’ job, as a hydraulic specialist, to make sure Brengetto’s aircraft took off safely.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Brengetto said with a smile after talking to Sargis. “It’s really great when you get to meet people that were with you on the same vessel or something. We get to reminisce.”
Sargis and Brengetto were two of 66 World War II veterans who bonded with each other during the fifth Central Valley Honor Flight earlier this week. The trip, which flew out of Castle Airport on Monday and returned on Wednesday, aims to honor veterans from “the greatest generation” by giving them a tour through Washington, D.C.
The trip is at no cost to the veterans and is funded entirely by donations, requiring the Central Valley Honor Flight to raise a minimum of $150,000 per trip. President Al Perry said each honor flight requires the work of 20 to 25 volunteers and takes several weeks to plan, with even more volunteers pitching in as the trip date draws nearer. This week’s trip was the fifth Central Valley Honor Flight in one year.
“Honor Flight really was founded to give them the experience of the [World War II] Memorial, to let them feel the respect and feel the thanks of America or, in our case, feel the thanks of the Central Valley,” Perry said.
Four Turlock veterans went on the D.C.-bound trip earlier this week, including Sargis, John Moon, 88, Alfred Johnson, 88, and Wallace Sanford, 88.
Moon was in the Navy for four years, spending much of his time on ships carrying ammunition and supplies to troops. He heard about the Central Valley Honor Flight on Memorial Day earlier this year, and thought it would be a powerful experience to share with his fellow World War II veterans.
The veterans viewed the National World War II Memorial with shining eyes on Tuesday morning. Most of the veterans had never seen the memorial outside of pictures, since it was completed just 10 years ago in April of 2004. Moon called the experience “beautiful.”
“It’s a privilege and a pleasure, this trip,” Moon said. “It’s very touching. It’s sad at moments, yes, and it’s very uplifting at moments. I’m never around people like this. It’s really a great pleasure.”
Johnson, a longtime pastor in Turlock, agreed.
“I was 18 years old, just out of high school, when I joined the Navy,” Johnson said as he looked at the striking, 56-pillar World War II Memorial.
“I’m just blessed to see all these kinds of things done here. It took a long time before they got the memorial up, but they did and it was well done. It’s a great feeling to be around and share with other veterans from World War II. It’s good for all of us to get together and share some of the good things and some of the not-so-good things.”
Johnson served on the USS DuPage (APA-41), which lost 35 men in a kamikaze attack in January 1945. He recalls shuttling troops back and forth to a number of islands, including Guam and the Philippines.
“We did take Marines to the battle of Okinawa and loaded them off there, too,” Johnson said. “And we went back to the States to pick up troops again, but the bomb went on and the war was over. It was a relief.”
In addition to the World War II Memorial, the 66 veterans, accompanied by guardians and volunteers, toured the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial, the U.S. Navy Memorial, the Women’s Military Service Memorial Museum and Arlington National Cemetery during the eventful, three-day trip.
For many of the veterans, the trip was an emotional one. Tears were shed as they gazed at the memorials, and their time in the service resurfaced. Several veterans noted that the memories they had thought were long forgotten — and never spoken about — came back as fresh wounds.
“The men we served with, a lot of them didn’t come back. They’re gone, because they were fighting for their country,” Sanford said. “So it’s an honor for each of us to be here. We are the lucky ones.”
Sanford served in the Navy from 1943 to 1946 as a hospital corpsman and spent time in Okinawa. When he recalls returning home from the service, his memory is vivid.
“There was a small welcoming home,” Sanford said. “When we got off the ship, there was a little band. It was maybe about 10 people or something like that.”
But when Sanford and his fellow veterans returned home from the Central Valley Honor Flight Wednesday, it was a different kind of welcoming home. A boisterous crowd of more than a thousand were waiting at Castle Airport in Atwater to give the veterans a long overdue, proper homecoming ceremony.
Patriotic music and cheers filled the air as the veterans exited their plane and saw the large crowd waving flags, holding “welcome home” signs and thanking the veterans for their service.
“It made me think and it almost brought me to tears,” Sanford said. “People really enjoy it, they’re thankful about what happened. This has been a real joy for me, to know that people are interested.”