Local vet participates in Honor Flight to nation’s memorials

Linda Saholt

News Review Correspondent

Local vet participates in Honor Flight to nation’s memorialsPhillip Nelson, 88, remembers being amazed, standing in a huge museum, looking up at the famous nose of “Enola Gay,” the B-29 Superfortress used in the mission that destroyed Hiroshima with an atomic bomb in World War II.

The museum he was standing in was the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va, one of the two buildings of the National Air and Space Museum.

Surrounded by World War II aircraft, Nelson and 91 other veterans had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to tour national memorials in honor of their branches of the service and conflicts they served in.

A program called “Honor Flight” transported Nelson and his group to our nation’s capital free of charge to the veterans. Honor Flight Network is a nonprofit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices. The group transports veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at their memorials.

Top priority is given to the senior veterans — World War II survivors, along with other veterans who may be terminally ill. To learn more, see www.honorflight.org.

“They had a P-38 and a plane built in France and some German aircraft, all still in one piece,” said Nelson. “It’s a real nice building. They put a lot of thought into it — it was well designed for that purpose.” He was impressed with the displays of artifacts from the time.

Equally impressive were fellow veterans on the flight. “Some were in their 90s,” he said.

“One Marine Corps sergeant wore his uniform every single day of the tour. I saluted him and we became very good friends. We met a lot of good people. We all had something in common.”

Other monuments the group got to experience up close were the World War II Memorial, with a huge stone pylon for each state; the Lincoln, Vietnam War and Korean War memorials; Arlington National Cemetery; the Field of Stars; the Air Force Memorial; the Navy Monument and the U.S. Capitol.

Also along on the trip were volunteer “Guardians,” one for every three veterans. The Guardians were there to help the vets in any way needed, especially with wheelchairs, stairs and so forth.

“They had extra wheelchairs in the storage compartment of the bus in case anyone needed temporary help,” said Nelson.

The “Honor Flight” program is funded by donations only, and uses no government funds. The Guardi-ans pay their own way. Many of the Guardians are friends or family members of the veterans. Nelson’s Guardian was Willard Winn of Bakersfield, a veteran of the Korean conflict.

Nelson’s trip with Honor Flight Kern County began Tuesday, Nov. 13, when the group gathered at the Bakersfield Airport for a 6:45 a.m. departure. They landed at Dulles Airport at 3:30 p.m., checked into their hotel at 6:30 p.m. and enjoyed a welcome banquet.

Early the next day, the group departed in four buses to the Lincoln, Vietnam and Korean memorials, then went to the Field of Stars, Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Memorial. Box lunches were served on the bus. Then came the Navy and Air Force memorials and back to the hotel for a dinner banquet by 6:30 p.m.

On Thursday, Nov. 15, the group again boarded their buses after breakfast, saw the Capitol, had lunch on the bus and saw the Udvar-Hazy museum. Later they boarded the buses for Dulles Airport and began the flight back to Bakersfield.

Each vet was given a souvenir red windbreaker jacket, making members of the group easy for the Guardians to spot in crowds. Nelson wore a favorite cap with ‘Seabees” on it. Near the World War II Memorial, Nelson had his picture taken with Rep. Kevin McCarthy.

Nelson’s own wartime story started relatively late in the war. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, he was 17, the third boy of a farming family of nine. “I was still in school. My two older brothers were already gone into the service.

“I got a couple of deferments because I was needed on the farm, but I started thinking about going into the military. I was drafted into the Army in 1945. Basic was at Camp Hood, Texas, for the infantry.

“They were preparing us to go to Japan, but then they used the bomb and changed our orders and sent us to Germany on a Liberty Ship,” Nelson remembered. “We docked in France and got on a troop train to go across France to Frankfort. I got off with a bunch of troops. We stayed there two or three months.

“Everything was still in rubble — some buildings were completely destroyed, others were partly destroyed. They put us up in what had probably been a hotel, two or three in a room. There were hundreds of us.

“We were policing and doing cleanup. We did the same thing at Bremerhaven. Everything had simmered down a lot. There was an old ammo dump, and we had to guard it 24/7. It was a pretty spooky job.

“From there, we were deployed back to the U.S. on a nice, big, comfortable troop ship, and arrived in New York Harbor and from there to Camp Picket, Va. They sent us to Chicago to a Separation Center where I was discharged. I got home on Thanksgiving Day, 1946. It was a great homecoming!”

Later, he came to Bakersfield and got a job with Caterpillar Tractor Company. “That’s where I met my wife, Dorothy Jean. She was a cousin of my brother’s wife,” said Nelson. They were married in November of 1947. In 1956 they came to China Lake, where Nelson went to work as a machinist-mechanic. They had two sons. Nelson joined the Navy Seabees and was in the reserves for many years.

In 2007 the Nelsons moved to Tennessee, but by 2010 they realized it wasn’t working out, so were packing to return to Ridgecrest, when Dorothy Jean fell and broke her hip. “She was in rehab to get back on her feet when her heart gave out. It was real quick-like. We were married 63 and a half years.

“We lost our oldest boy in 1990 in an accident. His daughter lives here. The youngest son, Marvin, lives here, near Inyokern. His two grandsons, Travis and Ryan, are here, too, and Ryan’s wife. They’ve been a real lifesaver for me. Without them, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Story First Published: 2012-12-19