PORTLAND, Miane (Tribune News Service) — Twenty-seven Maine war veterans, all but one from World War II, received a warm welcome back at Portland International Jetport on Sunday after a two-day trip to the nation’s capital.
The veterans said they felt an instant connection with one another on a trip that brought back memories of their war experiences.
“It was wonderful. I liked all of the memorials and everyone was impressed by the greeting,” said Harold “Pop” Gilbert, 91, of Lewiston, a gunner in the Army Air Corps who saw action in Europe during World War II.
The veterans’ trip was arranged by Honor Flight Maine, a group of eight board members who raise money and arrange free trips for World War II veterans and terminally ill veterans from any era to view the war memorials in Washington. The group is part of the national Honor Flight network.
This was Honor Flight Maine’s fourth trip since it began last year. Each trip costs between $40,000 and $50,000. All of the veterans are accompanied by a guardian, who can be a family member. The oldest veteran to make the trip this time was 98.
The veterans were welcomed back with a special parade through the jetport terminal that included a color guard from area police and fire departments and the Guns N’ Hoses Pipes and Drums of Maine marching bagpipe band. Suitcase-wheeling travelers looked on amazed as hundreds of flag-waving families and friends cheered on the veterans as they rode by in wheelchairs.
“We are getting better and better every time,” said Jennifer Dunfee, an Honor Flight Maine board member.
Dunfee said the trip to Washington went smoothly and the veterans had a lot of quality time to visit with one another. She said for younger World War II veterans the reception at the jetport is particularly meaningful because they missed the parades and ceremonies that greeted the older veterans just after the war.
“They were the cleanup crews who did not receive this sort of reception,” said Dunfee.
Norma Benjamin, who had traveled from Ridgefield, Connecticut, to welcome back her brother, Navy veteran Henry Swanson Jr., 87, of Dresden, said the event brought back memories of the war in Maine when she and her parents waited for his letters. The letters were few and far between because Swanson was constantly on the move.
“He was only 17 when he joined. That is what a lot of young boys did,” said Benjamin.
Gilbert, whose cousin Richard Bubier of Lewiston was also on the trip, said his time in Washington triggered memories of the 26 missions he flew as a gunner over Europe. A nasty cold that grounded him saved him from being shot down over Holland on a mission that killed one crew member. The pilot and radio man parachuted from the stricken plane and evaded capture with the help of people on the ground.
When Gilbert got back from the war he took advantage of the G.I. Bill and graduated from the University of Maine. He met and married his wife of 66 years, Norma, and went on to become a planner for the city of Portland, a manager in two Maine towns and a sales representative for a steel corporation. He has kept in touch with his pilot who was shot down and meets up with his coffee club three mornings a week.
“We tell each other tall tales,” said Gilbert.
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