By Steve Ranson
Santa Clause had an early, but unexpected Christmas …but it was for him and his new-found friends.
Hawthorne’s Walter “Wally” Francis, who entertains children every Christmas when he dons his St. Nick’s suit, had the experience of a lifetime when he, along with other veterans, recently visited the nation’s memorials built in their honor.
The four-day Honor Flight Nevada trip included many surprises including big, loud homecomings at both the Baltimore-Washington and Reno international airports, flight attendants and passengers singing patriot songs over the intercom and a personal welcome in Reno from fellow Hawthorne resident and former national VFW Commander John Stroud.
One of the largest Honor Flight Nevada homecoming crowds packed the Reno-Tahoe International Airport’s corridor from the escalators to reception area to welcome home Francis and the others. Family members and friends waved posters and miniature United States flags, while the Patriot Guard Riders stood at attention to form a flag detail along the corridor for the veterans who represented World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam. As of this date, Honor Flight Nevada has flown 950 veterans to Washington, D.C.
The 84-year-old Francis completed a 34-year career in both the U.S. Navy and Reserves . He grew up in Seattle and relocated after retiring from the military to Alaska, retiring from the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility before moving to Mineral County in 2000.
Francis, who’s considered a Korean War-era veteran, was a storekeeper aboard a ship that kept watch on the Taiwan Strait that separated s the island of Taiwan from mainland China. After the Korean War broke out on June 25, 195, President Harry S. Truman ordered the Navy to patrol the strait to ensure neither the Chinese or Taiwanese governments provoked each other.
The whirlwind call for Francis to join the latest Honor Flight Nevada came unexpectedly.
“I was at Hawthorne’s Armed Forces Parade, and I received a call,” he said.
“Can you be here at the VFW after the parade?” asked the caller.
Francis learned he was going to Washington, D.C. with other veterans. After the group left Reno on the same as the D-Day anniversary, Francis learned more about himself, his country and newly-made friends.
“Everything was just amazing,” he said, taking a break after touring the National Holocaust Museum. “The welcome party at the (Baltimore-Washington) airport was good. It was amazing.”
Several hundred civilians and active-duty military personnel lined up at the boarding area to welcome the veterans. Among the group included naval personnel assigned to Fort Meade, Maryland, an Army installation near the airport that houses many military and civilian agencies.
During the second day, Francis said he enjoyed the U.S. Navy Museum at the Washington Navy Yard, but Francis will relate best to the evening performance of the U.S. Marine Corps Drum and Bugle Corps, along with the 24-member silent drill team, at the Marine Barracks, the corps’ oldest installation. When he served in the Navy, Francis said he was a member of a 15-man drill team.
“We had two separate squads,” Francis recalled. “We’d put blindfolds on for some of the performance.”
During their four days, the veterans saw the World War II, Korean and Vietnam memorials, the U.S. Navy Museum, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial that is represented by the raising of the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima, Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the National Holocaust Museum. The veterans also met former Republican Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas who served in the U.S. Army during World War II.
The timing of the group’s departure to Washington, D.C. was noted throughout the ceremony.
“It’s fitting this flight departed on the 75 anniversary of D-Day,” said Brian Kulpin, vice president of the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority’s Marketing and Public Affairs, describing how 16,000 troops stormed France to free Europe from tyranny, which marked an important part of both American and world history and the nature of sacrifice and heroism. “We need to remember our heroes as we are doing today.”
Kulpin also gave pause to remember Nevada Army National Guard Staff Sgt. David Gallagher of Las Vegas who died last week in a training exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
Marily Mora, president and CEO, had a husband who served in Vietnam and a father who joined the military during World War II. She also noted the symbolic day of D-Day and the departure of the Honor Flight veterans.
“I have so much pride that we got to play a part of this that we could humbly stand here today and thank you again for your service,” she said.
Mora noted that there were three father and son pairs, a daughter and her father, two married couples and a grandson and his grandfather. In addition, one Gold Star father who lost his son in Iraq accompanied the veterans and also visited his son’s final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery.
Before the veterans departed Reno for their whirlwind trip, four-footers and their owners from Dogs 4 Paws greeted them at the airport for the sendoff and upon their return. The Comstock Lode quilters presented veteran with their own hand-sewn quilt.