Decades after serving during World War II and the Korean War, veteran Ruth Gwin, 94, was finally able to visit the national memorials honoring her efforts.
Gwin was one of one of 17 World War II veterans escorted this week by Honor Flight Central Coast to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials. She was the only woman veteran to make the trip.
“It was the most wonderful thing I have ever done in my life,” said Gwin, who was joined on the trip by her two granddaughters.
It was the first trip offered by the nonprofit, a newly formed local branch of the Honor Flight Network, which hopes to coordinate several trips a year for World War II veterans. The cost of the flights, meals, lodging and transportation for all the veterans was paid for by donations. Guardians and other volunteers paid their own way to assist on the trip.
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Greg McGill, who had been a part of the Honor Flight program in Kern County, launched the local chapter here because he saw what a positive impact it can have on a community. This was his fifth trip.
“Every time you see it, it is like seeing it for the first time,” he said of watching the veterans visit the memorials. “It is breathtaking to see those veterans walk into their memorial and be in awe of it. I can’t put words to it — it is that powerful.”
Long military career
Gwin joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1942 and later served in the Air Force during the Korean War. To Gwin’s surprise, a photograph of her standing next to President Harry Truman, who was seated at his desk at the White House, is hung on the wall of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw it,” said Gwin, who now lives in Arroyo Grande. “There it was hanging on the memorial itself. I have a copy of that picture but had never been told it was up there.”
Gwin said she held up her cane to show those nearby where she was in the photo — third from the left.
“Everyone was stopping and wondering who I was and making such a big fuss about it,” said Gwin. “I was having a ball.”
While there, Gwin also met retired Air Force Gen. Wilma Vaught, president of the women’s memorial — another revered moment for her. Gwin, whose birthday is Dec. 7, the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, said she was compelled to join the military because she felt it was her “patriotic duty.”
After basic training, she worked as a secretary in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, and soon earned the respect of those around her. Before long, a top-secret wire request came in, and she was asked to work as the secretary of a high ranking attaché in London at the American Embassy.
“He was in charge of intelligence and had requested me because he knew I could be trusted,” said Gwin. She agreed, was given top-secret clearance, and worked there until the war was over.
Back home in California, she joined the Air Force Reserve, “because I didn’t have anything to do on a Tuesday night.”
She was called into duty for the Korean War and served as a secretary at the Pentagon. At the time she was in Washington, they had just begun to build the memorials. She later retired after working at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
“It’s been a pretty good life,” said Gwin.
A proud veteran
Oliver “Hoppy” Hopkins, 90, a Navy veteran who served aboard the USS Nevada during World War II, is humble about his service.
The longtime Morro Bay resident, who ran a boatyard repairing and hauling boats before he retired in the early 1980s, said that the older he gets, the more he understands about his time in the service.
“I am kind of proud of what we did,” said Hopkins. “I realize now what it meant — what it was all about. In them days we were all daredevils anyways. I cry easy now thinking about it.”
He served in the Aleutian Islands and later in Normandy on June 6, 1944, D-Day, where he was on lookout on the ship with a clear view of Utah Beach. From his perch, watching through binoculars, he kept those below informed and alive.
“There were two guys with a machine gun mowing our boys out like a lawn mower,” said Hopkins. “They were in a church, up in the belfry.”
After he spotted them, they were able to take the shooters down.
He may have survived the war unscathed, he said, but his heart didn’t. Two months into boot camp after he first joined the Navy, Hopkins got a phone call that his dad had died. Outside, coincidently, they were playing “Taps.” The song still gives him goose bumps.
“It is one of the scars that you don’t see,” said Hopkins. “It hit me pretty hard. You see, all of the guys there were just kids, and they were trying to make a man out of you too damn quick. I was only 18.”
Hopkins said he couldn’t have made the trip to Washington, D.C., without the help the volunteers who were by his side to assist him.
“It’s too much of a distance for some of us young guys to walk around,” he joked. “I realize now so much more about what it was all about, and I feel like I really did earn that trip,” he said. “There ain’t no man who won the war for himself, and it took good guys, and a lot of them.”