Red, white and blue balloons dotted the hangar at Grand Aire at Toledo Express Airport as hundreds of well-wishers gathered to welcome back 80 World War II veterans who flew to Washington, D.C., Wednesday on the season's first Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio.
Seven men from the area made the trip.
Harry "Bud" Pitman of Tiffin, 94, may have been the oldest veteran on the April 13 Honor Flight. He graduated from Eden Township High School in Melmore and was working at National Machinery in Tiffin when the war broke out. He served in Army for two years and in the reserves for three years.
"I went to Europe in '43 and come back in '45. We were special troops of the American First Army, and we were one of the supporting units for the 9th Infantry Division. We landed in Normandy, Utah Beach. We were split into three sections ... The other units landed on D-Day, D plus 1. We came in on D plus 2," Pitman said.
His outfit served in all five campaigns on the continent of Europe. Although he worked under a range of conditions, good and bad, Pitman managed to return to the States with no injuries. He used his military experience to partner with a good friend and operate a garage and filling station in Sycamore.
"I was a mechanic, and I was the automotive section leader in the 126th Ordinance Company. We maintained the trucks. We did not work on tanks. We worked on trucks and half-tracks, jeeps and other vehicles ... We were right up with the 9th Division. We stayed close to them and did their service work," Pitman said.
A lifetime member of the VFW and the American Legion, Pitman also belongs to the AMVETS. Over a period of 18 years, he had attended reunions with his special troops company in Fort Wayne, Ind. They met in Tiffin at Riverview Inn for five years. The last two gatherings took place in Frankenmuth, Mich. Pitman said out of 160 men, only seven could attend the final reunion.
"When we met in Tiffin, The Advertiser-Tribune came out and interviewed us and took a picture of the group. The first year, there were 27 of us," Pitman said.
His name had been on the Honor Flight waiting list for about 18 months. Late last summer, Pitman fell and broke a hip. Although he worried about missing the trip, he was well enough to make it. Honor Flight provides a trained personal guardian to assist each veteran throughout the day. Pitman's guardian was a relative, Gretchen Uhlenhake of Tiffin, his second cousin.
"She helped me with the application, and she was a wonderful helper for me ... she helped all the guys get on and off the bus," Pitman said.
The flight left Toledo about 30 minutes later than planned, but Pitman said the reception at Dulles Airport was impressive, with lots of "kisses and thank-yous" bestowed on the veterans. Each traveler had a wheelchair waiting for him or her.
"The wheel chairs were lined up like taxicabs," Pitman said.
Despite several trips to Washington, D.C., Pitman had not seen the WWII Memorial. He said he made good use of the disposable camera Honor Flight provided. At the end of the day, Scout troops met them at the airport for a farewell send-off.
Back in Toledo, an honor guard from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion stood at attention to welcome them back as the Genoa American Legion Band played patriotic selections. After a brief reception with friends, family and media, everyone headed for home.
"Even though we had rain, it was worth every bit of it." Pitman said.
Mike Estock of Fostoria turned 85 April 2, so the Honor Flight trip served as a belated birthday gift.
He started high school in Wickliffe and enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17.
After serving from 1942-46, he finished his diploma in Fostoria.
"After I got out of boot camp, I went to Navy Pier and was put on that carrier that was out in the lake for training. I spent three months on there, then shipped to the West Coast,"Estock said.
From there, he went to South Pacific on the USS Andromeda (AKA 15). The Andromeda-class attack cargo ship carried military cargo and landing craft to deliver supplies, weapons and troops during amphibious operations. Estock worked as an engineer in the "fire room," where he suffered an injury from a near miss that exploded in the water near the ship.
"We took care of the boilers," Estock explained. "Down in the fire room, we had a kamikaze just miss us with a bomb, and the concussion blew me up against a steel railing, which tore up my leg."
After his discharge, Estock started working as a lineman for AT&T. He was laid off after two years and found work for the next 30 years at the Autolite plant. He knew Dale Lowery, another Honor Flight vet, from the workplace.
The USS Andromeda was decommissioned in the 1950s. Estock said he had not attended any military reunions, and he had not visited Washington, D.C., to see the World War II memorial. His daughter, Deb Hendrix, sent in his Honor Flight applications about two years ago. Her husband, Robert Hendrix, went along as his guardian.
Dale Lowery of Fostoria, age 86, graduated from Carey High School. He is a veteran of the Army Tank Corps and spent all of his deployment in the United States with no service-related injuries.
"I was a tank mechanic. I was at Fort Knox for 13 months. Then I went to California ... They closed up that base and I went to Fort Hood, Texas. I got out while I was down there," Lowery said.
"I was a jack of all trades. At one time I was teaching OCS (Officer Candidate School), down in Fort Knox. After the Battle of the Bulge, they put everybody they could in the tank corps. We would teach OCS in the morning and in the afternoon, we'd take officers out for tank traffic. I did a little bit of everything," Lowery said.
Back in Ohio, he worked 39 years at Autolite Spark Plug in Fostoria with shorter stints at the soybean plant and Kroger. His daughter, Karen O'Connor, is dispatcher for Tiffin Police Department, where her husband, Joseph, is a police officer.
A member of the Carey American Legion, Lowery has kept in touch and visited about once a year with his army squad leader, who lived in Kansas and now resides in Colorado. Lowery had seen the framework and scaffolding for the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C., but he has been waiting two years to see the finished project with Honor Flight.
Bob Peddicord of Green Springs, age 88, served 1942-1945 in the U.S. Navy. He was stationed on the U.S.S. Honolulu, a light cruiser in the South Pacific theater. He came home uninjured.
"I was an electrician. They sent me to Purdue University out of boot camp to learn to be an electrician. I've been an electrician ever since," Peddicord said.
A graduate of Green Springs High School, Peddicord used his training to work for Zablocki Electric in Fremont. He belongs to the American Legion in Green Springs. He signed up for Honor Flight about three years ago. Although he had visited Washington, D.C., in the past, Peddicord had not seen the World War II memorial.
"I'm not going to see it very good now because I'm the next thing to blind. Before, when I put my application in, I could have seen it," Peddicord said.
Upon his return from the trip, his smile was as broad as those of the other men.
Dick Cleveland of Green Springs, age 85, attended Green Springs High School. He incurred no injuries while serving in the Marine Corps 1943-46 in the South Pacific. He was called back in 1951-52.
"I was a cook the whole time. We had mess duty for 90 days, so I decided - the heck with them. I'll be a cook," Cleveland said. "I was lucky. I'm 85 years old and I am still working. I'm a courier for Croghan Colonial Bank in Fremont."
Cleveland's employment included a number of jobs, including quality control, plant manger, purchasing agent and head of maintenance.
"I've been a manager for 35 years, and courier at the bank for 13. I delivered newspapers for two years. My wife had cancer. We had so many bills they broke me. She had it for nine and a half years," Cleveland said.
He said treatments for his wife of 52 years cost "thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars" beyond what Medicare and insurance covered. She eventually lost her life to the disease. Cleveland was looking forward to the Honor Flight. He said he was pleased for the chance of a closer look at the monument. On his last visit, hot temperatures kept him from walking around.
He is a member of the VFW in Green Springs, and he signed up for Honor Flight more than a year ago. Recently he learned that school children helped finance the excursion for a Clyde man, Peddicord and himself.
"This came up unbeknownst to me. The kids here at Clyde-Green Springs School took up a money collection to send me on this trip. They collected $1,297 to send three of us," Cleveland said.
Bob Wagner of Bellevue, age 84, attended Bellevue High School and graduated from York High School. He enlisted in the Navy and was sent to a Navy training center in Sampson, N.Y., for amphibious training. Soon after, the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.
"That was the end of the war, as far as we were concerned. From there, they turned the amphibious center into a separation center and a lot of ships came in. Because I could type, I drew the assignment of discharging men," Wagner said. "We had German prisoners there from the 'Afrika Korps' ... They did all the cleaning in the mess halls. It was interesting to see the enemy that close up."
Wagner's next stop was Great Lakes, Ill., where he worked for a lieutenant commander who was writing a book on gunnery. Wagner said his knowledge of math helped him get that job. He was discharged from there, uninjured, in August 1946.
"It wasn't a very exciting time. The war was over. I stayed in the reserves because of my enlistment. I enlisted when I was 17. I stayed in the reserves, and then in 1950 got recalled. That lasted about 17 months," Wagner said.
After his discharge, he earned a bachelor's degree from Ohio University and his master's from Ohio State University. He had a "human factors engineering" contract with the Air Force, which concerned the instrumentation on jet aircraft. Eventually, Wagner started his own business, Capital Aluminum and Glass Corp.
A life member of the American Legion Post 46 in Bellevue, Wagner waited more than two years to take his Honor Flight. His last stop in Washington, D.C., was 1962.
He also tried to visit his old training center, only to learn it no longer exists.
"I went back there some years ago to see what was there, and they had torn absolutely everything down. Wagner said.
Bob Wilt, age 86, is a native of Tiffin who now lives in Upper Sandusky. As a youth, he carried papers for The Advertiser-Tribune.
"I had 165 customers, and the paper was 15 cents a week. I made about $3.50 or $3.75 a week," Wilt said. "Louie Kummerer was the one that passed out the papers for the delivery boys."
Like many others, he cut short his senior year at Columbian High School to enter the Marine Corps. Wilt served from 1943-1946 and received his diploma after his discharge.
"I was supposed to go to Parris Island for boot camp but they had spinal meningitis, so they sent us out to the West Coast ... When we got out there they had a spinal
meningitis epidemic," Wilt said.
From there, Wilt was sent to an engineering battalion that built bridges and covered soft airstrips with heavy metal plates. His unit also went to New Zealand and Okinawa, where they were when the war ended. From there, they were sent to China to disarm the Japanese. After Wilt's return to Ohio, he worked at General Electric in Tiffin for 39 years. He and his wife are about to celebrate their 50th anniversary.
"I think she straightened me out," Wilt said.
A member of American Legion in Upper Sandusky, Wilt also attended one reunion for the First Marine Division some years ago in Washington, D.C. He has been waiting about two years to take Honor Flight.
"I've been hanging on by a banana string. I've had five bypasses. All my family is dead but me outlived them all," Wilt said.
He was surprised when a limousine arrived to pick him up for the ride to Toledo. The vehicle had flags on the front and a sign bearing his name on the passenger's door.
"It was like the president," Wilt said.
At the airport in Toledo, he was interviewed and featured by Channel 13 television. The welcome in Washington and a greeting by school students from Rossford and Bellevue at the World War II Memorial were memorable.
The word he kept using to describe the trip?