World War II veteran John Lansdowne said everywhere he went in Washington D.C., people came up to him and said, “Thank you for serving our country.”
“And to this young guy I says, ‘You don’t have to thank me. They gave me $21 a month and my room and board!’”
“He just looked at me like I was some kind of nut. Which I probably was,” Lansdowne said at his Truxton home this week.
Lansdowne, 92, spent a day in the Capitol city, visiting half a dozen war memorials, all possible for free thanks to the Honor Flight Syracuse program.
Lansdowne’s daughter, Linda VanWagenen, heard about the program on T.V. and applied in October. They heard they were accepted for the April 29 visit in February.
Since 2012, Honor Flight Syracuse has sent veterans to Washington on nine flights, free of charge. The next one is planned Sept. 30.
Priority goes to World War II and Korea vets, and those with a terminal illness, said Amy Delia, a volunteer board member for Honor Flight Syracuse.
“A lot of these people went off to war as young men and women. They served their country and came back and went back to their lives. They never had the opportunity to be celebrated and recognized for their service,” she said.
Nurses are on board and people are well cared for. People can apply for the free program at honorflightsyracuse.org website, she said.
The private, nonprofit, covers the greater Syracuse area, Northern New York and the Mohawk Valley.
“It was longest I ever did of my adult life on a trip without spending any money,” Lansdowne said.
He and 80 other veterans boarded a special flight in Syracuse, accompanied by one guardian each who would help them make the trip.
Lansdowne and his daughter, Linda VanWagenen of Truxton, left Syracuse at 5 a.m. and got back at 11 p.m. at night. “And never spent a dime,” Lansdowne said.
Meals were provided.
“The only thing we had to drink was water,” Lansdowne said. “Dad was hoping for something stiffer,” VanWagenen said.
“They were treated like rock stars wherever they went,” VanWagenen said.
When their plane landed, the group was welcomed by thousands of people, bag pipers, men’s choruses, people handing out cards.
There was a water cannon salute, as well, she said. Schoolchildren wrote notes, specifically addressed to the vets, thanking them.
“Another impressive thing: We had a police escort wherever we went. There was so much traffic,” VanWagenen said.
The tour guide on the bus transporting vets from one monument to another said, ‘Watch this. The traffic is going to melt away,’” as police men in cars and motor cycles preceded the group with fanfare.
They visited the National World War II Memorial, the United States Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, Air Force Memorial, the changing of the guard of the Tomb of Unknown Soldier, Lincoln Memorial and the Korean and Vietnam memorials.
Every veteran had a wheelchair available and there was a wheelchair full of water on the 92-degree day.
Lansdowne was in the Navy from 1943 to 1946, a water tender on the U.S.S. Marcus Island aircraft carrier stationed in the Pacific Ocean, fighting the Japanese. He was in the boiler room, making fresh water out of salt water, enduring 120-degree temperatures on his shift.
“Most of the guys in the boiler room of the ship ended up bald headed after about six months,” he said.
His ship was attacked by a Japanese cruiser that put two shots through the hull, in one side, out the other, fortunately above the water line.
“We got a bomber off our aircraft carrier and he sunk the cruiser — or else I wouldn’t have been here to tell the story.”
“I think it’s wonderful,” Carl Bullock, director of the Cortland County Veterans Service Office, said of the program.
It is funded by veterans clubs in the region, as well as major sponsors.
“It gives these guys a chance to see their memorial, which took so many years in the making,” he said. And some may not be able to afford to go on such a trip. “I think it gives closure to them.”
“I was excited about it, sure, to see a lot of the old World War II guys. I though possibly I might run into World War II guys that I knew. But I didn’t, “ Lansdowne said.
The World War II memorial was most impressive to him.
Getting back to their seat, Lansdowne came upon the World War II veterans. “Lot of old farts on this plane, aren’t there,” he said. “What do you think you are,” one replied. “We had a lot of fun.”