George Rankin of Cambria is still dazed from his free Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.
Rankin, 88 — a Navy 1st Class quartermaster in World War II, serving in the South Pacific on a convoy screening for submarines — apparently was the first Cambria resident to take an Honor Flight Network trip, and one of the first two applicants for the mid-April flight, the first dedicated to Central Coast vets, according to organizer Greg McGill, a Kern County firefighter who volunteers with the network.
Rankin is a former forklift operator and Brinks, Inc., employee who was born and raised in a Pennsylvania coal camp.
“In my junior year of high school, I decided I was going to win the war all by myself, so I quit school and joined the Navy.” Rankin laughed at the lofty dreams of a teenage male. “It didn’t work out that way. Other guys had to help me.”
He and wife Mollie Rankin retired to Cambria in 1984, and became known for their quiet volunteerism for the Lions Club and the Salvation Army. He chaired the Army extension for 13 years. She died in 2010.
The Honor Flight “was just three days long,” Rankin said, “but what a three days it was! I’d live ’em over every week if I could.”
He said the truly astonishing part was the many people who waited for hours at airports and other locations to provide a proper welcome for the veterans they consider heroes.
In San Luis Obispo, Phoenix and D.C., big crowds gathered to “applaud, whistle, cheer and call out ‘Congratulations!’ and ‘Thank you,’” Rankin recalled. His hand was shaken repeatedly, and he even got a kiss from a Navy widow (she asked first).
As the veterans entered the terminals, the roar “would just explode. You couldn’t hear yourself think … It was fantastic,” Rankin said. “It humbled me and made me feel proud, all at the same time … Boy, oh boy, oh boy!”
Each veteran was assigned a “guardian,” a younger man who did everything from get a wheelchair and wheel the vet around to carrying luggage, getting snacks and even taking photos with the vets’ cameras. “When we’d go down in the morning for breakfast, they’d be waiting for us,” and the guardians stayed with the veterans all day.
“My guardian was David Hardt, a married real estate broker from Bakersfield,” Rankin said. “He was perfect. I couldn’t have done it without him.”
In Baltimore, the vets paired up, two to a hotel room. Rankin said he lucked out again, rooming with good friend John Burke, a former Cambria resident and Army veteran.
Points of interest on the whirlwind tour April 13 included the Smithsonian Institution, the World War II Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial, Air Force Memorial, Korean Memorial and Vietnam Wall.
The next morning, they went to Fort McHenry, where in September 1814, Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner” poem that eventually became the country’s national anthem. The tour concluded with a visit to the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Back home, Rankin said, “Oh my, it was perfect! What a trip it was.”
The fun still hasn’t stopped. A couple of weeks after the flight, “I got a call from a gal who asked, ‘You know what a C47 is? Ever ridden in one? Want to?”
Of course, Rankin said “yes” to Janet Pierucci of San Luis Obispo, and he was at the Paso Robles Warbird Museum at 8 a.m. the following Saturday, to fly with Sherm Smoot in his “Gooney Bird,” now registered as a DC-3 and based at the museum.
“We flew to Bakersfield for lunch!” a still-astonished Rankin said.
Then about a week later, Pierucci invited him to a small luncheon party.
“I’ve had the best two or three months that I’ve had in a long time,” Rankin said. “I’ve met more people, and my feelings toward people are different now.
“Everybody involved in these flights was so good and nice to us. They bent over backwards. It brings back a little bit of faith in humanity again, all those people volunteering for this.”
McGill said another Cambria vet, John Angel, is scheduled to go on the next Central Coast Honor Flight in late August.
According to the website www.honorflight.org, the network “is our way of paying a small tribute to those who gave so much — a memorable, safe and rewarding Tour of Honor.” The nonprofit transports “our heroes to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at their memorials. Top priority is given to the senior veterans — World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill.”
The network is funded by donations, “primarily from individuals across the country who recognize the great accomplishments and sacrifices of veterans and want them to see their memorial before it's too late.” Other significant contributors have been local corporations and fraternal organizations, such as posts and chapters of American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Am Vets, Disabled American Veterans and Military Order of the Purple Heart.
To apply, fill out an application at the Honor Flight Kern County website at www.honorflightkerncounty.org. Veterans are selected on a first-come, first served basis, McGill said, with preference for World War II vets and any with terminal illnesses.
July 23: The Honor Flights information section has been updated to correct the name of the group that took George Rankin on his Honor Flight.
Follow Kathe Tanner on Twitter at @CambriaReporter.