Hudson Valley Honor Flight brings 87 area veterans to D.C.
It was the last bridge standing across the Rhine River and presented an avenue for Allied troops to cross the span and drive into the heart of Germany. The battle and capture of the bridge at Remagen in March, 1945 was a significant win for the American soldiers who fought there, including George Low, 86, of Pine Bush.
“It’s a part of my life I don’t like to talk about,” said George Low on Saturday.
Low sat at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., one of 87 veterans who seized the opportunity to visit the nation’s capital with the Hudson Valley Honor Flight, a group that strives to take veterans to see the memorials in their honor at no cost to the veterans.
Serving with the 35th Combat Engineers, under General George Patton, Low was there for the end of the Battle of the Bulge and for the battle at Remagen.
“We were making an assault across the river,” said Low.
He explained that they were below the bridge and the engineers were putting in an assault. They had made it halfway across when the enemy discovered them and began firing. He was wounded in the shoulder and leg.
“I received the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for leading the assault,” said Low, adding he didn’t want to say any more about it. “That’s the most I’ve ever said about it.”
The humble hero found himself the center of attention on Saturday however, heading out of his home in Pine Bush to find that he had a police escort to the meeting location-ShopRite in Montgomery. Along the roads were American flags and his friends and neighbors had gathered to see him off. He arrived at ShopRite for the bus to the airport only to find yet another send off crew, with the Maybrook Boy Scouts Troop 236 Band playing.
Another police escort arrived along with upwards of 50 motorcycles from Rolling Thunder and members of the Orange County Sheriff and New York State Police. Along the way to the airport, the Vails Gate Fire Department saluted the buses under a large flag hanging from the bucket of their truck.
At the airport, another crowd was gathered to see them off with a live band and a short ceremony. Senator Bill Larkin, a fellow World War II and Korean War veteran, spoke to the crowd.
“Every one of us remembers who was with us and who isn’t with us anymore,” said Senator Bill Larkin, a WWII and Korean War veteran. He fought off emotion to say: “I’m honored to be a senator, but I am more honored to be a fellow veteran.”
Milton Eager, 87, an Army veteran, also attended the trip with his granddaughter, Bonnie McDermott, of Walden. She discovered to her surprise, that it was Eager’s first time on an airplane as he had been transported by ship during the war and later in life his wife had not wanted to fly.
As the plane accelerated and began to leave the ground, Eager exclaimed, “Holy mackerel that young man is in a hurry!”
He later told McDermott that the flight was the best time of his life other than when he got married.
In Washington, D.C., the veterans stepped off the plane into another welcoming party before being escorted to the different memorials including the World War II Memorial.
John Nelson, 92, of Middletown, stood silently before the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the invasion at Pearl Harbor. Nelson, a recipient of the Purple Heart, was serving in the U.S. Army and was a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Another man of few words, he did not want to speak on his experiences, but said that the trip was “terrific and beautiful.”
Low’s story was among many amazing stories shared on the trip. Traveling together, the company of heroes was full of firsthand accounts of America’s history. They spoke of watching the atomic bombs dropped on Japan and surviving the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Normandy. They fought at Iwo Jima and watched the flag at the top of the hill proclaim victory. Many quietly held Bronze Stars, Purple Hearts and a multitude of other medals, with even their own family members unaware of the extent of their service and sacrifice.
“I heard them say, ‘Old Glory’s flying,’” said James Hyman of Haverstraw, a Bronze Star recipient, as he stood just yards away from the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, DC.
Hyman, a Navy corpsman attached to the Marines, is a survivor of Iwo Jima and while he didn’t see it happen, was there on the day the iconic photo was taken of the American soldiers as they raised the flag atop the hill. That image has been immortalized with a bronze sculpture just outside the Arlington National Cemetery.
Robert Tighe, a Marine with the 4th Division, was also a survivor of Iwo Jima and stood with Hyman recalling that he had been on another part of Iwo Jima and didn’t see the now famous moment, but heard about it. Hyman related how after he heard the message, he had looked up from the base of the hill and saw the flag.
Among the veterans on the second Hudson Valley Honor Flight was Navy veteran Jean MacIntosh from Sleepy Hollow, the lone female veteran.
“I didn’t join the Navy to find a husband,” she said emphatically, peering to make sure her statement was being written down exactly.
MacIntosh was just 17 when she joined the military, had just graduated high school, and was engaged to her future husband, Herbert. Her sister had previously joined the Army and had already seen North Africa and Italy. MacIntosh wasn’t about to let her have all of the adventure, so she joined the Navy in September of 1943, becoming a control tower operator at a Navy air base.
“It was a very tiny airport that served blimps and sea planes,” MacIntosh said, noting that she wasn’t sent overseas, but never regretted it because she loved what she was doing. “It was exciting just being in a naval air station. I loved just watching the planes take off.”
Ensign Jean Otto witnessed some tragic accidents at the airport, although she did not see any battles. Eventually she was sent to Florida where she taught pilots to use radar, or “night fire.” In March of 1946, she left the military to get married to her husband, who was also in the Navy and had been posted on a ship in the Pacific. They had four children.
Otto and others that were not wounded or involved in major battles put off recognition, stating that they were not heroes and diverting attention to other veterans. The special guest speaker at the dinner held for the veterans in Washington, D.C., argued otherwise.
“Part of the reason you are heroes is that you think you’re not,” said retired U.S. Marine Corps General Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Every single one of you should be proud of yourselves…we are,” said Pace.
For many of the veterans on the Flight, the recognition and warm welcomes were the first of their kind and overwhelmed them, bringing tears and expressions of shock.
“It’s been a delightful day for me,” said Hyman, noting that his large family has supported him over the years. “I can’t imagine how much joy this gave to the men here with no family. We don’t have days like this all the time. It was a very, very good day.”
The veterans were escorted to the World War II Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watch the changing of the guard, and to the Iwo Jima Memorial. Huge welcoming parties camped out at the airports, complete with live bands.
As the buses left the airport for the final leg of the return trip, once again led by a police escort and members of Rolling Thunder, an unidentified soldier spoke into the quiet darkness of the bus: “This was a better greeting than I got when I got home from the service.”
The Honor Flights have been focusing on World War II veterans as they are growing older and many are passing away every day. According to Walden Mayor Brian Maher, the Flight leader, two local veterans accepted for the Flight passed away just a few days shy of the trip.
Another Flight is in the planning stages for this September. For more information, visit: www.HVHonorFlight.com.
By RACHEL COLEMAN