Above, Edward A. Vitagliano (Dad) during his time in the Marines. Inset, Ed and his father on the Honor Flights trip.
Some of my earliest recollections are of me as a boy, lying on the bed with Dad on a Saturday morning, as he showed me pictures of his time in the Marines (1947-52). What boy wouldn’t be fascinated by a photo of his father holding a flamethrower or sitting on top of an M4A3 Sherman tank? I’ve always been proud of my father’s military service.
Fast forward to 2019.
“Does anyone need a bottle of water?”
The offer came from Jim Hart, president of Space Coast Honor Flight. He was just as tired as the 24 military veterans, their “guardian” escorts, and a handful of volunteers, as we all slumped into our seats on the darkened charter bus.
In fact, I was taken aback by the offer. How has Jim not collapsed from exhaustion? How is this guy still serving, more than 20 hours after this trip started?
But serving veterans is what the volunteers of Space Coast Honor Flight are all about. SCHF has the single-minded mission of taking World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam veterans to visit their war memorials in Washington, D.C. As the group says on its website, their purpose is “to show our gratitude to these heroes who made it possible for us to enjoy the freedoms we have today.”
SCHF is part of the Honor Flight Network, a non-profit organization created solely to honor the country’s veterans. (See below.) There are 131 honor flight “hubs” – of which SCHF is but one – covering 45 U.S. states. Since 2005, more than 200,000 veterans have taken part in the honor flights program.
My favorite Marine
I had the honor of accompanying my father, a former Marine, on this trip. Every veteran had a friend, family member, or volunteer serving as a guardian. Each of us came to assist our veteran in order to ensure they had every opportunity to see the memorials created by a grateful nation to recognize the sacrifices of those in attendance, those who might never visit, and those who never made it home.
And it was an honor for me. As Will Rogers said, “We can’t all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they walk by.”
Boarding the bus was the last leg of a trip that had begun for Dad and me at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 16, at the Wickham Park Senior Center, in Melbourne, Florida. From the time of departure from the center until we returned just before midnight that same day, our time was packed with outpourings of honor and gratitude for these veterans.
There was a water gun salute from the local fire department; police escorts to and from the airports and through busy, often bumper-to-bumper traffic in the nation’s capital; and dozens of total strangers who came out at two airports – both going and returning – to honor these vets. It was stirring and inspiring.
Everybody joined the effort
Before the SCHF trip, I was looking through one of Dad’s old scrapbooks. This one was from 1941, and the first half was filled with newspaper clippings typical of a carefree youth. The yellowed paper and faded photographs spotlighted the New York Yankees’ victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series; fall brought articles from state football powerhouse Everett High School and Boston area college games.
Then there was a startling change as newspaper articles about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor took front and center. The rest of the scrapbook was filled with one topic – the fighting between the Allies and Axis forces during World War II.
“I had just turned 13,” he said. “I remember sitting around the radio and listening. We got the word that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and the losses. That’s the way it was in those days. Communication was not like it is today. We got the word later.”
Dad said he paid very close attention to the war and various battles. “I was always aware of where our guys were and what they were doing,” he said. “And that’s what got me really interested in the military because I followed it during the war.”
As the war continued, he said boys his age went to school and played football in the streets. But that wasn’t all they did. “We joined together in going to the dump, looking for metal and rubber and all the other things they needed for the war effort,” he said. His father was a member of the auxiliary police. There were air raid drills in those days, and every home had to have blackout curtains. There were rationing cards for food. His brother joined the army in 1944.
“Everybody joined in the war effort the best they could,” he said. “Everybody.”
When Dad got out of high school, the war was over, but the military draft was still in effect. In 1947, he and the other guys in the neighborhood decided to enlist. “I decided to join the Marines because I remembered all the battles in the Pacific,” he said. “Others joined the army or the navy, and we all went our separate ways.”
Dad served his three years in the Marines, and when his enlistment ended, he intended on taking advantage of the G.I Bill, which paid for college for veterans of the U.S. military. However, a mere three days after his discharge from the Marines, the Korean War started.
“The outfit I left behind really took it on the chin in Korea,” he said. They were sent over to reinforce the understrength 1st Marine Division. Fighting against vast numbers of Chinese infantry that had entered the war, many of the men Dad knew were killed or wounded.
“One guy who survived told me the Chinese got through at night in large numbers, and Marine officers were getting our guys out of their sleeping bags,” he said. “The fighting was hand-to-hand.”
Dad reenlisted on one condition – that he be allowed to serve in a fighting capacity in Korea. The recruiter promised him he would see action, but after another year-and-a-half in the Marines, and with the military sending over only fresh recruits, he was discharged.
He said he’s often wondered what would’ve happened had he still been in the Marines when his platoon was sent to the war. He’s also wrestled with some degree of guilt for not seeing action.
“I don’t know how I would’ve made out in Korea,” he said. “Maybe I would’ve been killed – who knows? In any case, not going changed my life. And so did serving in the Marines.”
Spending the day in the nation’s capital with my Dad and those other veterans was humbling. In whatever war they served, in whatever capacity, and whether or not they saw action, those men and women are heroic figures who did as their nation asked them.
To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
I am honored to have been one of those who stood on the curb and clapped as our heroes walked by.
Learn more about Honor Flights
To contact the Honor Flight Network or to get more information, visit honorflight.org or call 937-521-2400.