52 WWII vets expected for end-of-war commemoration on Oahu amid virus worries
By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: August 6, 2020
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HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — With a Japanese helicopter destroyer, the battleship Missouri and USS Arizona Memorial behind them, officials announced Wednesday that 52 World War II veterans plan to attend events on Oahu marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the deadliest conflict in human history.
The news conference was a scene that pulled together the upcoming Rim of the Pacific exercise with the presence of the Japanese ship, the start and end of World War II represented by the Arizona and Missouri, and the many challenges to both RIMPAC and the 75th anniversary event due to a surging COVID-19.
The update was provided on the back lawn of the Arizona Memorial visitor center. Both RIMPAC and the Aug. 29 to Sept. 2 end-of-World War II commemoration have been reduced in scope and scale due to the coronavirus, but both are moving forward.
A mostly at-sea RIMPAC is scheduled Aug. 17-31 with 10 participating countries. The 646-foot JS Ise arrived Wednesday for a brief Pearl Harbor stop, while two South Korean destroyers showed up last week, the Navy said.
Planners of the end-of-war events described the passion behind the decision by veterans who are in their mid-90s and up to come to Hawaii — COVID-19 notwithstanding — and the importance of honoring the actual Sept. 2, 1945, official surrender date by Japan.
Fourteen of the veterans were either on the Missouri, in aircraft overflying the battleship or on a ship nearby for the ceremony in Tokyo Bay. Of the 52 total, 44 are from outside of Hawaii.
“The greatest motivator is if you talk to these veterans or their children or their grandchildren and their desire, their passion, their commitment, their resolve, to want to be a part of this,” said Tony Vericella, executive director of the 75th World War II Commemoration Committee in Hawaii.
He added that the veterans “are making the choice — they want to be here.”
Committee co-chair Steve Colon, a retired Navy captain, noted that the coronavirus “situation is changing on a daily basis,” but that Sept. 2 is the day that the surrender ceremony took place on the Missouri.
“Seventy-five years from Sept. 2 (1945) regardless of whether all of the World War II veterans who can and want to make it here, can, for whatever reason, or whether none of them can, we will do some sort of ceremony on the fantail of the Missouri,” Colon said. “That date is too important for us to just let that go.”
Modified quarantines and travel bubbles are planned to allow veterans, their families, dignitaries and vintage warbird crews to take part in specific events, organizers say.
Vericella said “we’re taking every precaution” with the veterans and families “including having them self-quarantine 14 days before they even come (and) obviously have a highly controlled, managed and orchestrated process” during the four days they’ll be in Hawaii.
A group of warbird owners coming with vintage planes and the veterans and their guardians make up the “vast majority” of about 225 people who are arriving for the events, he said.
Any events on the Missouri will be “very small” due to COVID-19 with the Sept. 2 9:02 a.m. ceremony planned to be streamed live.
Mark Esper, the secretary of defense, and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, have shown a “strong indication” they will attend, Vericella said.
Meanwhile, 14 vintage warplanes and some crew are on their way on the Navy amphibious assault ship USS Essex to take part in three flyovers.
Five AT-6/SNJ advanced trainers, two PBY Catalina flying boats, a B-25 bomber, an FM-2 Wildcat, an F8F Bearcat, a P-51 Mustang, a Stearman biplane, a TBM Avenger and a T-28 Trojan are among aircraft expected to participate.
Elissa Lines, executive director of the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, noted that Wildcats were significant aircraft at Guadalcanal and Midway, while 33 PBYs were destroyed in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“So to have two PBYs coming, landing in the harbor (and) taken off the ship, its going to be pretty amazing to see the PBYs here,” she said. PBYs were reconnaissance planes, they searched for submarines, moved troops and picked up wounded, Lines said.
Hawaii-based F-22 Raptors, C-17 cargo aircraft and KC-135 refuelers are also expected to participate. Oahu flyovers are scheduled for Aug. 29 and 30 and Sept. 2.
Vericella said warbird pilots and crew will be traveling to and from military bases for airplane work “and every time there will be health and security screenings.”
Organizers also will be creating travel bubbles with separate trips for veterans and warbird crews that keep the groups separated from the general public, he said.
An open house for the public to see the warbirds at Wheeler Army Airfield was canceled due to COVID-19. Updated information will be posted at the website 75thwwiicommemoration.org.
The abbreviated RIMPAC is the subject of a petition that a group called the “Cancel RIMPAC Coalition” said it delivered Wednesday to Gov. David Ige’s office with 12,000 signatures from Hawaii and foreign nations seeking a cancellation of the interoperability maritime exercise.
“With a record 207 new COVID-19 cases reported on Monday, holding RIMPAC is reckless and irresponsible. Yet, RIMPAC is still scheduled to take place in the waters off Hawaii from Aug. 17-31,” the group said in a release.
The group said it is seeking a cancellation of the exercise by U.S. Pacific Fleet and requirement for 14-day quarantine for all military personnel arriving in Hawaii. Ige’s office said it was reviewing the petition.
Just nine countries besides the United States are participating due to the coronavirus, officials said.
Two years ago, the last time the biennial exercise was held, 25 nations, 46 surface ships, five submarines, 17 land forces, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel were part of the big interoperability drills. All the participants were reinvited for 2020.
The Navy said some ships will be in port briefly for logistics purposes. Their crews will remain with their ships and will not leave the piers to which they are moored.