The Cambrian

Cambria veterans visit D.C. memorials on Honor Flight

John Sampson visits the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C., on his recent Honor Flight trip.
John Sampson visits the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C., on his recent Honor Flight trip.

We honor fallen military heroes in many ways. On Memorial Day, some people attend solemn ceremonies, sing patriotic songs and hang flags in tribute to the members who died in service to their country. Friends, family members and Scouts put flowers and flags on graves.

Others take time to thank every military person they see, or to help the family of a member who’s deployed.

Honor Flight

A dedicated group — Honor Flight Central Coast — honors all veterans all year long. To show some older military members how much the service of all veterans is appreciated, Honor Flight “guides” accompany those who fought in long-ago wars on free whirlwind trips to national memorials that are tributes to those who have died in service to their country.

It costs $1,500 per veteran, but the vets pay nothing. Rotary clubs throughout the county, including the Rotary Club of Cambria, pay for five veterans to go on Honor Flights each year, to the tune of $7,500. The guides pay their own way.

Three Cambria men were on a flight that left Monday, May 16, from San Luis Obispo airport: Korean War vet John Sampson, 84, and guides Greg Sanders and Jay Burbank, both veterans in their own right.

Sampson served in the Minnesota National Guard during the Korean War. He worked for Armour & Company for 35 years, retiring at the age of 59 as a regional sales manager in the San Francisco office. Sampson and wife Bonnie moved to their Marine Terrace home in Cambria in the late 1990s. He was active in the American Legion Post No. 432 and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows No. 181.

The trip

According to John Gajdos, Honor Flight spokesman, this trip included 17 veterans from World War II and four Korean War vets, including one woman (who served in the Women’s Army Corps) and her veteran husband.

With the exception of drizzly weather and a delay because of an anthrax scare, which meant the vets were traveling very slowly through Washington, D.C., rush-hour traffic, Sanders said, the trip was nearly flawless.

Even though the honorees were in their 80s and 90s (one was 98, according to Sampson), they kept up with an almost relentless schedule.

The flight left early Monday, May 16, arriving in Baltimore in the early afternoon. Tuesday included visits to the Air Force Memorial, Women’s Military Museum, Arlington National Cemetery (and the changing of the guard), the World War II Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam War Memorial and Air and Space Museum.

All the greetings at the airports, people playing music, shaking your hands, giving you hugs. It was amazing.

John Sampson, Korean War veteran

Wednesday, they started at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, with its amazing organ (there was someone there to play it for them, too!). They then had the traditional Honor Flight lunch at Mission Barbecue in the Baltimore suburb of Glen Burnie and went to Fort McHenry, where “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written. Their flight home arrived late Wednesday evening.

“We were so bushed tired, I think I slept the first two days,” Sampson said. After all, “we did a lot of hiking,” and some of the senior-citizen vets aren’t used to that anymore.

There were so many special moments, he said: “All the greetings at the airports, people playing music, shaking your hands, giving you hugs. It was amazing.”

The welcomes given to the vets were heart-warming, from standing ovations and firetruck water cannons shooting sprays over the plane to a “full-on police escort” from Baltimore to the nation’s capitol, Sanders said. Going down the freeway “was like parting the Red Sea, with red lights flashing, traffic pulling to the side of the road so the bus could pull through.”

Then on the way home, he recalled, a “mail call” on the plane gave the vets letters from family, friends and even kids from the grammar schools, telling them what the veterans’ service meant. “Some of the vets were in tears.”

The Honor Flight’s end result is the honored vets “feel pretty special,” Sanders said, “which is the whole purpose of Honor Flights.”

Memorial Day in Cambria

The North Coast’s Memorial Day ceremonies will begin, as usual, at 11 a.m. around the flag stand at the Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St. (In the unlikely case of bad weather, the ceremony can move inside the hall.)

According to Dave Ehlers, commander of the sponsoring American Legion Post No. 432, the keynote speaker will be Col. Joe Righello, commander of Camp San Luis Obispo and a 30-year National Guardsman. Ehlers said the ceremony will feature a color guard, presentation of the flags, and awarding of the Mel McColloch Merchant of the Year Award.

Meg Stern will sing the National Anthem, a local scout will lead the Pledge of Allegiance, Randy Schwalbe’s men’s chorus will sing patriotic songs, and veteran John Angel will do a patriotic reading.

Following the ceremony, Sons of American Legion Post No. 432 will provide a burger and hot dog barbecue; a $5 donation is recommended.