On Oct. 4, when 80 World War II veterans returned to San Diego from their Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., a crowd of hundreds greeted them at baggage claim. Flags waved, posters shook and the Navy Band played.
Honor Flight Network is a nonprofit that takes World War II, Korean War and Vietnam veterans to see their monuments and memorials in the nation's capital.
"A lot of tears, lot of smiles, lot of handshakes, lot of hugs," said Richard "Sunny" Farrand, assistant district service officer.
Legionnaire Arnold Fernandez, 91, is a WWII and Korean War veteran who served in the U.S. Coast Guard and the Navy.
"The reception at the airport in Washington and the arrival back in San Diego was awesome with bands playing, people cheering and waving flags, reaching out wanting to touch you, thanking us for our service," Fernandez said. "We never had anything like this after WWII."
But his chance to go on an Honor Flight came as total happenstance.
"My wife and I were shopping at Costco in Carlsbad, Calif., and I was wearing a cap that says WWII Veteran on the front when a lady approached me and asked if I served in WWII. When I said yes, she said, 'Would you like to go to Washington D.C.?'
"I have always wanted to go but never made it. So she gave me the name of the person to contact with Honor Flight San Diego," Fernandez said.
He sent in his application, and waited. He said it took nearly two years to get approved and scheduled for the all-expenses paid trip to view the WWII and Vietnam monuments, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. The group also saw the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials and the Washington Monument.
"It was like a dream come true," Fernandez said. "All those memorials reminded me of what a great country we live in and the people that sacrificed their lives to make it so. And also of friends of mine that served in WWII but never made it back."
Those memories have stayed with Fernandez. During his time in uniform, he served as a sonarman in both wars. From those experiences, Fernandez said the Aleutian Islands during WWII stand out as particularly harrowing.
One close call came when Fernandez detected a two-man Japanese submarine off Attu Island.
"We dropped depth charges, missed and then hit them with our Hedgehogs shot from the bow that explode on contact. I am sure we hit them because a couple of bombs exploded with shrapnel landing on our deck, but we had no proof, so it wasn't documented as a kill," he said.
Another was during "a great storm with winds up to 200 miles an hour." He said the crew was ordered to turn back from Adak Island into the storm to look for two cracked Liberty ships, the Chief Washakie and the Gaines.
"Thirteen men were lost at sea. The storm was so severe that I thought we were on a suicide mission. I saw our skipper and executive officer putting the ship's papers and codes into a brass metal container that was kept in the sonar room, with holes so it would sink to keep the Japanese from retrieving them.
"We found one ship cracking in half and called for help to save the crew. Luckily, the storm subsided and we made it back to port after losing our lifeboats and even tearing the 3" guns loose from their mounts on deck. The only positive thing was that we had to return to Seattle to repair the ship," he said.
Farrand, who has attended the Honor Flight return celebrations for the past three years, said these types of contributions are what make these Honor Flight celebrations such an opportunity to show gratitude to "the greatest generation."
Each time, Farrand brings someone new, so the crowd continues to grow.
"As a volunteer for the American Legion for almost 10 years, I found that it does your heart good to give back to others and to thank those who have served our country with honor," Farrand said. "It's giving back to the community and veterans serving veterans—that's what we do."
As for Fernandez, seeing the monuments dedicated to his and other veterans decades after he served is something he hopes others, especially WWII veterans, are able to do.
"I hope that every living veteran has the same opportunity that I had to visit Washington, D. C.," Fernandez said.
For more about Honor Flights, visit https://www.honorflight.org/