Gahiji Bostick stands tall, like the Marine he’ll always be.
The 80-year-old Fresno resident smiles broadly and bumps fists with a passing stranger, a young innocent who knows nothing of the Korean War. Bostick left the Marine Corps in 1957 as a corporal, but for this moment at the World War II Memorial he and dozens of other veterans from California’s Central Valley are held up as knights of the realm.
“It’s fantastic,” Bostick says. “I’ve never been this celebrated in my whole life.”
Bostick is among 66 veterans participating in this week’s Central Valley Honor Flight, the 13th of its kind since the Valley’s program began in 2013. The all-expenses paid, three-day trip, part of a national network started in 2004, brings veterans back to visit war memorials and Arlington National Cemetery, among other sites.
The trips began with a focus on the rapidly shriveling population of World War II veterans, and an emotional centerpiece remains the stop at the World War II Memorial located between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument on the National Mall. On Tuesday morning, beneath a threatening sky, the veterans show up early to beat the potential rain.
As a corporal, you almost feel like a forgotten-type guy, you know?
Gahiji Bostic, U.S. Marine Corps, 1954-57
Accompanied by individual guardians, the veterans laboriously disembark from their three buses, which earlier in the morning swung them by the iconic U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial and will take them in the afternoon to Washington’s Vietnam and Korean war memorials.
“It was a great way to bring back old memories, and also to meet people who did a lot more than I did,” says Herman Kong, an 83-year-old Visalia resident and Air Force veteran.
While the veterans from 10 California counties range in age from 62 to 96, only seven on this trip had served in World War II. Time keeps having its way with the old soldiers, sometimes at the last minute. Sixty-seven veterans, including three women, had been scheduled to make the chartered flight out of Fresno on Monday and return Wednesday, but one couldn’t make the trip, organizers said.
Nationwide, only about 620,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in uniform in World War II were alive in 2016, and an average of about 372 are dying each day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Now the Honor Flights are serving more Korean War-era veterans and even a few from Vietnam.
“I’m the oldest guy they could find,” says Merced resident and Army veteran Carl Loewen, adding that living to 96 “was the one thing I didn’t figure on.”
Loewen served in the 395th Infantry Regiment of the 99th Infantry Division, which fought valorously in World War II’s tide-turning Battle of the Bulge. Like many, though not all, of the red-jacketed veterans mingling at the war memorial Tuesday, he retains vivid and at times singular impressions of his time in the service.
“I remember my serial number from the day I was inducted,” Loewen says.
Another Merced resident, 83-year-old Marine Corps veteran Robert “Marty” Martinez, remembers how “everyone got seasick” on the troop ship that took them to Korea. Now, it’s a funny story; then, not so much. Once off that God-forsaken vessel, Martinez says, he serviced A-1 Skyraider dive bombers stationed near the 38th Parallel separating North and South Korea.
Others take care to confine their memories.
Coarsegold resident Fernando “Freddie” Villanueva, who is now 83, served in Korea with the 5th Marine Regiment of the 1st Marine Division. He was wounded three times: once by a stray bullet, once by a concussion grenade and once by shrapnel.
“I stay away from that part of my life,” Villanueva says. “I’ve been there, I’ve done it and now I don’t have to worry about it.”