The Greatest Generation. That is what Tom Brokaw labeled the generation including World War II veterans. By and large, these veterans have been reticent to talk about their experiences and my father, Vaughn Gordy, Jr., is no exception. Over the years we, his children, have slowly pried some of his stories out of him.
This year his World War II unit, the 459th Bomber Group, scheduled its 22nd reunion and 60th anniversary in Washington DC. These men flew B-24s out of Italy on missions to bomb targets in Germany and elsewhere during the war. The highlight of this reunion trip was to be a visit to the newly opened World War II Memorial. This intrigued my father and four months before the event he asked if I might think of accompanying him to Washington for the reunion. I, of course, jumped at the chance.
About a month before the trip was to begin; my youngest brother Calvin said he could join us by flying from Oregon to meet us in Washington DC. This was an unexpected enhancement to the weekend as his work precludes him from visiting the family more than once every other year or so.
While the initial planning called for us to bring my mother along, her health was in decline and we decided to leave her behind in the care of our middle brother, Steve. In essence Calvin took the reservation slot of my mother.
My father had discovered the 459th Bomber Group Association while doing some exploring on the internet. He receives their regular newsletters and had attended one other reunion in San Francisco.
For us this 22nd reunion began on Wednesday September 8 with me flying from Chicago to Pittsburgh to join my father. Thursday morning, we said farewell to my mother, caught a ride from Steve to the airport and headed for Washington DC.
The flight to Washington was uneventful. We received the usual cautionary warning to stay in our seats for 30 minutes prior to landing. We were met at the gate by a wheelchair attendant and quickly wheeled to the taxi stand. In no time we were at our hotel, the Wyndam at 1400 M Street. The hotel had a banner above the front door welcoming the 459th Bomber Group.
For some reason they had reserved not two rooms but four for us. While the two we were assigned were not adjoining, they were on the same floor and close enough. We unpacked and met back in the lobby to complete the registration process.
Upon registering, we discovered that the 459th Bomb Group has set up a “Memory Room” downstairs that was filled with pictures and other memorabilia.
We both found this fascinating but shortly after we arrived, they announced they were closing it for a while in order to hold a meeting of the officers of the Reunion Association.
Left on our own, we elected to visit the Air and Space Museum on the Washington Mall. It was a quick taxi ride and they had wheelchairs available at no cost as long as one turned over his driver’s license during the rental period.
The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is enormous and makes it possible to trace the history of flight from early gliders, to the Wright Brothers, through the military and civilian aircraft, and finally to space travel. We spent 2 hours and only covered the museum at a superficial level.
We returned to the hotel in time to board buses for Andrews Air Force base. The reunion group needed six busses to transport the entire party. Some were equipped with wheelchair lifts to help those who weren’t able to walk.
The organizer of this reunion was Susan Elmasian. She had worked for two years to obtain the necessary security clearance for this reunion group to go onto Andrews Air Force base. She worked a lot of connections and was successful. An active duty military officer was onboard each bus and vouched for the group at the Main Gate of the Air base.
We proceeded to the flight line and pulled up in front of two KC-135s. The 459th Bomber Group has now been recommissioned as the 459 Air Refueling Wing and the KC-135 is their current airplane.
The airplanes were ready for our tour.
The reunion group was given full access to the airplanes and was guided by the active duty pilots and crewmembers. It was truly a very warm reception with a lot of respect shown to the whole reunion group.
The sign at the bottom of the stairs reads “459th Air Refueling Wing Welcomes Heros from the 459th Bomb Wing.”
The symbols on the engine covers are the same pattern that the 459th Bomber Group had on the tails of their airplanes 60 years ago.
The 459th ARW made a second airplane available to the Reunion group inside a large hanger.
Following the tour of the airplanes, the Reunion Group was invited to the squadron briefing building for beer and soft drinks and a slide show of the various nicknames given to the World War II B-24s. Below is the plaque in the squadron building dedicating the building to the 459th Bombardment Group.
We then re-boarded our busses for a trip to the other side of Andrews Air Force Base to the Andrews Officer Club.
Again, the 459th unit flag was flying outside the Officers Club to welcome the Reunion Group.
The Reunion Group was given a wonderful dinner at the Officers Club. At large tables the attendees had the opportunity to meet and socialize with other veterans and their families.
Following the dinner, the group was bussed back to the Wyndam Hotel. Everyone was plenty tired and there was a big day ahead.
My father had realized that he had left his medication behind and didn’t want to spend the whole weekend in Washington DC without it. There was a 24 hour CVS pharmacy nearby and we paid a visit.
The pharmacist there was very helpful. He checked his computer and found the prescriptions from the home CVS. He provided my father with enough to get him through the weekend.
On Friday, the Reunion Group gathered for breakfast in a large conference room at the Wyndam set up just for them. Again, there was opportunity to meet new people and share war stories. At this point we were joined by my brother Calvin from Oregon.
Following breakfast, it was back to the busses for a trip to Arlington National Cemetery.
Once again, we encountered security issues trying to enter Arlington National Cemetery. Guards stopped the busses and were looking for prior permission having been granted. Once again, however, Susan was one step ahead of them.
The busses took us to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Here we observed the very ceremonial changing of the guard. This is an extremely ritualized exercise that is very impressive and takes place on a precise schedule.
There is an open air coliseum behind the tomb.
The rules for becoming and remaining a member of the honor guard seem almost inhuman. They have to have a 32 inch waist and agree never to drink alcohol..
These guys are incredibly sharp.
Once again, Susan and the reunion committee had surpassed all of our expectations. She had arranged for a wreath laying ceremony at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
One representative from each squadron of the 459th Bomber Group was chosen to participate in the ceremony. It was a solemn and touching experience. Those of us who were there to see it will never forget.
There is just no way to describe the way a visitor to Arlington National Cemetery is overcome by the acres and acres of tombstones from fallen soldiers.
The visit to Arlington was very emotional for everyone. The group was very quiet and they reassembled and loaded up on the buses once again.
This time it was for a relatively short trip to the newly opened World War II Memorial on the Washington Mall.
World War II was fought primarily in two theaters, Atlantic and Pacific. The Memorial is defined by two archways at either end identified as Atlantic and Pacific.
The smaller pillars surrounding the pond in the middle are identified as each state and territory from which soldiers participated in the war.
Pearl Harbor gets a special plaque.
Looking one direction from the Memorial, one sees the Washington Monument.
Looking the other way, one sees the Lincoln Memorial.
Once again, exceeding everyone’s expectations, Susan and the reunion committee had arranged another honor guard and another ceremonial wreath laying ceremony.
Each corner has a significant quotation related to an aspect of the War.
Below is my father at the wreath laid by the veterans of the 459th Bomber Group.
The color guard proceeded to a raised balcony for the playing of taps.
The young gentleman below, John VanHorn, was most impressive and made everyone jealous by being able to fit into his original officer’s uniform from service in WWII.
There was a little confusion about when and where we were to meet the buses so everyone had some time to kill. We all relaxed on the benches and enjoyed the beautiful Washington weather.
The visit to the World War II Memorial was the last event of Friday and a very tired group returned to the hotel.
Dinner was on our own that night and Dad, Calvin and I caught a taxi to “Blackies” for a good steak dinner. We were all happy to collapse in bed that evening.
Saturday September 11, 2004
The early part of the morning on Saturday was relaxed because there was an organizational meeting for the 459th Bomber Group Association. My father, Calvin and I enjoyed a relaxed breakfast and then walked around the neighborhood. At 11:00 we once again boarded the buses, this time for the Udvar-Hazy Center.
The museum is very near Dulles Airport and took quite a while to make the trip. It has a large, tall observation deck that some on the bus mistook for a runway control tower.
The museum is enormous and a wheelchair was a welcome addition. This is Calvin standing behind my father.
There are real airplanes as far as one can see in either direction.
|The jet engine from a T-37 which was my first jet trainer in the Air Force.|
|The SR-71 is a high altitude reconnaissance airplane that was recently retired.|
|The Enola Gay is the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.||This is the airplane.|
The Shrike Commander is the airplane flown by Bob Hoover at many air shows I have attended. It is truly amazing to watch Bob put this airplane through its paces.
Bob Hoover would finish each demonstration by climbing to about 5,000 feet and feathering both propellers. He would then make a high speed pass on the runway, pull up into a wing-over, come back to the runway from the opposite direction, land and park without ever restarting the engines.
After a box lunch at a Subway on the premises (a first for all of us) it was time to once again board the buses and return to the hotel.
Saturday evening was the Reunion Banquet. There were several speakers including Brigadier General Sieverson. He is the current commanding general of the 459th Air Refueling Wing. He gave a terrific, patriotic speech about the role of the military in achieving and maintaining peace in the world.
General Sieverson was followed by one of the 459th veterans who presented a wonderful slide show of pictures contributed by the veterans of all four squadron.
Using the slides, he took us from the United States, across the Atlantic, up through Africa, and finally to their base in Italy.
He then took the audience on a pictorial trip through a typical day’s bombing mission. He showed us pictures of the tents, the chow hall and the latrine. He showed the briefing room where the crews learned of their objective for the day.
He then had pictures of the flight line and the maintenance crews out getting the airplanes repaired, fueled and ready to fly.
This was followed by the takeoff and some circling while everyone got off the ground and formed into formations. The B-24 airplanes from this Bomber Group would then join with B-24s from other groups so that 1,000 B-24s were in formation for the bombing run.
He had pictures of the planes in formation, the fighter cover that was provided by P-51s, and some pictures of the flack that tried to bring down the big bombers. It was an amazing presentation.
Then Susan got up and thanked everyone who had contributed to the reunion.
She then asked for a showing of hands for how many veterans were at the reunion with two of their original crewmen. The men at several tables held up their hands. Susan continued until she reached seven. There was one crew at the reunion with seven of its original crewmen. They received a long round of applause.
After the ceremonies, my father got to talk briefly with John VanHorn..
Sunday September 12, 2004
My father was able to make contact with Senator Bill Hathaway who has retired in Washington, DC. Bill helped my father purchase the engagement ring for my mother back in 1944 before heading overseas.
Both men are still married to their first wives.
All in all, it was an amazing weekend with some amazing people. The whole weekend could not have been better planned and to coincide with the recent opening of the World War II Memorial made it even more special.
For me it was a unique opportunity to spend a weekend with my father and relive some of his experiences from the War. I am truly grateful for the experience.