As he sat down to a big barbecue on the first evening of the Central Valley Honor Flight to Washington, 83-year-old Korean War veteran Oscar Cordova remembered a more humble meal of C-rations and Spam.
“We had a lot of Spam, so much Spam. It’s why I don’t buy the stuff any more,” the Madera man said with a wry smile before taking a big bite of pulled pork. It was the first night of the Central Valley Honor Flight and Cordova’s first trip to Washington. The plane flight was only Cordova’s second, the first being when he was deployed to South Korea.
“I still can’t believe all this,” he said. “I feel like I’m in another world.” For Cordova, who still proudly wears his Army dog tags, it was a trip of a lifetime alongside 67 other veterans from the Central Valley.
“This is an amazing adventure for me,” he said. “I never thought I’d be able to do something like this. I’m brimming.”
The Central Valley Honor Flight is a non-profit organization, which takes Valley World War II and Korean War veterans on an all-expense paid trip to Washington to visit the memorials dedicated to their service.
Al Perry, president of the Central Valley Honor Flight, has led all 12 flights. “This is about honoring these guys and the sacrifices they made,” he said. Perry, along with an all-volunteer group of about 25, has coordinated three to five flights each year since 2013. Each flight costs around $190,000 and includes a jam-packed itinerary to take veterans to the World War II Memorial, Iwo Jima Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and more.
For the veterans who make the trip, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to commemorate their service. And for Bill DeGeneres, 93, of Oakhurst, the trip also was a walk down memory lane.
DeGeneres was one of the first veterans to step off the bus at the Iwo Jima Memorial, and upon seeing it, broke down in tears.
DeGeneres served in the Navy as a pharmacist’s mate attached to the 3rd Marine Division during World War II. DeGeneres was headed to Iwo Jima, but instead was reassigned just before.
“We had no idea what was coming,” he said. Looking at the statue brought back a flood of memories. “Those were my friends,” he said. “I lost a lot of friends out there.”
For Leeroy Tucker, 91, of Madera, the World War II memorial had a similar effect. “It’s just beautiful,” he said wiping his eyes. “I had no idea it was like this.”
Tucker, an Army sergeant from 1944 to 1946, earned the distinction of having served in both the European and Pacific theaters.
Pulling out a map commemorating the service of 86th Infantry Division, nicknamed Black Hawk Division, Tucker retraced his journey through the Ruhr region of German territory with General Patton’s 3rd Army.
One of Tucker’s favorite stories to tell was of his division’s capture of the minister of Hungary who caught red-handed trying to escape the country with the crown jewels of Bavaria in May of 1945.
Tucker also recalled a time when he and a comrade snagged a German rifle and a bottle of cognac from the front seat of a Volkswagen, ineffectively camouflaged in the forest.
“There’s not many left from our crew,” he said, jolted back to the present standing in front the Freedom Wall at the WWII Memorial. The wall features 4,048 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans who died in the war.
For most of the Central Valley group, it was the first time to see the monuments dedicated to their service and sacrifices.
Also on the trip were Stan Lung, 85, of Bass Lake; Ralph Seitz, 90, of Madera; Harold Waksdal, 85, of Oakhurst and C. Ray Whitaker, 85, of Madera.
The veterans were welcomed home last week by a teeming crowd at Fresno Yosemite International Air Terminal.
As the Clovis Community Band played, the veterans were escorted along a corridor of airmen from Lemoore Naval Air Station saluting as the veterans made their way to cheering family and friends.
“It’s the welcome home most of these guys never got,” said Perry of the ceremony. “It’s really something to witness.”