CARLSBAD — As the Greatest Generation slides into history, a group of spry, military veterans still meet each week at the Carlsbad Senior Center.
Typically about eight come together for lunch to reminisce about their times during World War II, Korea or Vietnam, but the group all have another thing in common: Honor Flight San Diego.
Each has boarded a flight from San Diego to Washington D.C. to visit the WWII memorial and others in the nation’s capital.
These men, seven of whom are 91 or older, with the youngest at 80, are full of energy and bouncing around as well as one could expect for being elder statesmen.
They drive to the center to share laughs, eat lunch, enjoy the company of their brothers and even sing.
The group, however, began modestly about a year ago when Walt Travis, a former Marine in WWII, noticed a Marine sticker on a car at a shopping center. Travis, the only California native of the bunch, discovered it belonged to Ray “Pete” Piper, a fellow former Marine.
“I saw a Marine emblem on a car at Costco,” Travis said.
Also 92, Piper and Travis began meeting at the center and soon the group expanded to include former Marines Rip Harper, 98, Vic Freudenberger, 97, Walt “Val” Valentine, 91, and former Army infantryman Jack Moreno, 80, and Army Air Corpsman Fred Koestner, 92, who was a pilot and went on to fly the U-2 spy plane.
Each man, however, has their own unique story as most were born in the “Roaring 20s” and adolescents through the Great Depression before joining the war effort.
Valentine witnessed the raising of the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima, perhaps the most iconic image of WWII, served in Korea and two tours in Vietnam. Harper, meanwhile, had a private pilot’s license prior to the war, but failed the Army Air Corps test because his distance vision didn’t meet standards, so he joined the Marines.
Years after the service, Piper self published a book in 2011 titled “The Forgotten Battalion,” which documents the events of the Second Division, 3-I-10th.
“Most everyone heard of the Lost Battalion in World War I,” Piper wrote in his preface. “Well, we considered ourselves the forgotten ones.”
The Honor Flight, meanwhile, is an all-volunteer based effort to provide all expense paid trips to Washington, D.C. for WWII veterans. Travis’ daughter, Lesile Granger and honor flight volunteer Donna Hester, described their efforts during lunch last week.
Granger said the veterans apply, then are appointed a guardian (chaperone) and flown to the East Coast. Upon their arrival — both to and from — fire engines spray water across the plane in honor of the vets.
Honor Flight is only successful as the donors it cultivates, which range from private residents to businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Granger said about 90 veterans make the trek each trip, giving them the chance to visit the WWII memorial and others in the capital.
“It’s all volunteer and based on donations,” Granger said. “They just love it.”
“The volunteers pay their own way,” Hester added.