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Turlock WWII veterans join honor flight
Honor Flight pic1
Congressman Jim Costa (D-Fresno) talks about the importance of thanking World War II veterans for their service during a press conference in August to announce the fifth Central Valley Honor Flight, which is set to leave from Castle Air Base on Monday. - photo by Journal file photo

The final preparations are being made for Monday’s take off of the fifth Central Valley Honor Flight that will escort area World War II veterans to the nation’s capital for a special reception and tour of the World War II Memorial.

The Central Valley Honor Flight takes WWII veterans to Washington D.C. for a three-day trip that includes a visit to the National World War II Memorial, which was completed in 2004. They also will spend time the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial and the Marine Corps Memorial, among others. They will also witness the changing of the guard at Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknown and be the guests at a lunch sponsored by a Central Valley congressional delegation at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The organization also plans for a grand send-off and homecoming event for the veterans.

Central Valley Honor Flight is a volunteer-based organization that serves out its mission to veterans through donations and corporate sponsorships. So far, the organization has flown out nearly 300 World War II veterans, free of charge, to see their memorial in Washington D.C.

For the first time the flight will depart from the former Castle Air Force Base in Atwater, a site where many of the pilots and crewmen trained during WWII. The museum houses aircraft used in WWII, including some models that were piloted by a few of the veterans joining this honor flight.

“We are so excited to be able to organize our first North Valley flight from Merced County,” said Paul Loeffler, vice president of Central Valley Honor Flight. “When you add the historic value of Castle Air Force Base, it creates a powerful dynamic to an already amazing and emotional experience for everyone involved. It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Castle Air Museum, Foster Farms and all of our amazing partners.”

Foster Farms’ sponsorship of this honor flight came about after the program was brought to the attention of Ira Brill, the company’s director of communications. Brill had recently attended the funeral of his next door neighbor, who was a highly decorated WWII veteran.

“None of his friends and neighbors knew about his service and awards until after his death,” Brill said. “He was part of a very modest generation and they have never gotten the recognition they deserve.

“We feel privileged to sponsor the flight and provide the kind of celebratory send off and homecoming that these men and women never received during their years of service,” Brill said. “We sincerely hope that other California companies join us in making future flights possible.”

Joining the honor flight will be 88-year-old Al Johnson, a resident of Turlock. Johnson joined the U.S. Navy in 1944 and served on an attack ship in the Pacific.

“I read about the honor flights in the Journal and I turned to my daughter and said ‘why don’t you check this out,’” Johnson said. “And now I’m going to D.C.”

As a semi-retired pastor with Crossroads Church in Turlock, Johnson was asked to deliver the invocation before take-off. Johnson said he is looking forward to spending time with the other veterans, and finally getting a chance to see the long-anticipated WWII Memorial.

“I never thought it would happen,” Johnson said. “I think it will be quite an experience for all of us.”

Joining Johnson from Turlock will be WWII veterans John Moon, Sanford Wallace, and David Sargis.

The community is invited to participate in the honor flight’s departure and homecoming ceremonies. The departure from Castle will begin at 7:30 a.m. Monday with a short program with guest speakers, a Reveille “First Call,” a send-off parade and a water arch salute as the plane hits the runway for its 9 a.m. departure.

The public also is encouraged to attend the homecoming ceremony at Castle starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday. The museum will be open with free admission beginning at 3 p.m. in advance of the 5 p.m. program – where as many as 1,500 loved ones, marching bands, cheerleaders, sponsors, elected officials, fellow veterans and military members will line-up to thank the local heroes as they return home.