By Barbara Tetreault
BERLIN — When he returned home from serving in World War II back in 1945, there was no formal welcoming ceremony for Gedeon Vallee, thanking him for his service.
He went to trade school, married a war widow with two young children, and eventually landed a job in the Berlin paper mill.
Two weeks ago, the 97-year Berlin native joined 59 other veterans on an Honor Flight New England to Washington, D.C. The flights are designed to honor the country’s most senior veterans by flying them to the nation’s capital to see the various war memorials and monuments.
Along the way, the veterans enjoyed police escorts and well-wishers who turned out to greet them when they departed and arrived.
“I was impressed,” said Vallee, describing the group that gathered at Logan airport at 5:30 a.m. to see the veterans off and greeted them on their return trip. Volunteers and representatives from various service groups greet the veterans at stops along the way.
“It’s hard to say how amazing it was,” added his grandson, Foris Anctil. Anctil accompanied his grandfather on the trip as his official trip guardian. “Everywhere we went it was ‘Thank you for your service.’”
It was not until 2004 that the National World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. was open to the public. It recognizes the service of the 16 million who served in the U.S. Armed Forces and the more than 400,000 who died in the war.
Since then, it has become a race against time to get as many World War II veterans to see the memorial as possible. It has been 72 years since the war ended and most veterans are now up in their 90s. Honor Flight New England notes that approximately 500 World War II veterans die every day.
That’s the purpose behind the national organization Honor Flight Network and regional organizations like Honor Flight New England. The organizations fly the country’s most senior veterans to Washington, D.C. to see their memorial as well as Arlington National Cemetery and other veteran monuments. Priority is given to World War II veterans along with veterans of more recent wars who may be terminally ill. Donations allow the organizations to fly the veterans at no cost.
Vallee said he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941. He said he was one of the last men drafted in the first draft for the war. At the time, he was 24 years old and worked as a commercial bus driver.
He did his basic training in Arkansas and from there went to Camp White in Oregon for specialized training. Traveling by Liberty ship, Vallee said he landed in Africa. He said a torpedo struck another cargo ship in the convoy after it split off from his ship.
Initially, Vallee said he initially worked as the company clerk but spent most of his time overseas in Italy working in the engineering company, helping to build roads and bridges. He served four years and was discharged in 1945 as the war came to an end. Two of his brothers also served in the war.
Vallee learned about the Honor Flight New England Program through his grandson Foris and Foris' wife Colleen Anctil. Colleen Anctil works in the Vet Center in Manchester and the pair asked Vallee last year if he was interested. He was and originally he was set to go last fall. But Vallee had health issues that forced him to postpone it until this spring.
“I wanted to go but I was afraid I couldn’t do it,” he said.
But this spring he felt up to the challenge and his family made the arrangements to go on the April 30 flight.
His granddaughter, Debbie Therrien of Gorham, drove her grandfather to Foris and Colleen Anctil’s house in Westford, Mass. Each veteran is allowed to bring a guardian to assist him or her and Foris Anctil agreed to go. Honor Flight also has additional personnel that travel with the group to assist the veterans.
At 97 years old, Vallee was the oldest veteran on the flight.
Foris Anctil said the two left his house early to make the 5:30 a.m. meeting time at the Massachusetts State Police barracks. The veterans received a variety of gifts including a New England Patriot jacket from the team’s charitable foundation. Then with lights and sirens blazing, state police escorted the three buses of veterans to Logan Airport in Boston. The plane flew to Baltimore Washington International Airport in Baltimore, where another police escort accompanied the chartered coaches to D.C. At both airports, Anctil said they were greeted by a welcoming committee that included a variety of organizations such as scouts, Gold Star Mothers and volunteers.
In addition to the World War II memorial, the group visited the Korean War memorial, the Lincoln Monument, the U.S. Marine Corp War Memorial and the Air Force Memorial.
“It was quite a comprehensive day,” said Anctil.
He said all during the day, traffic was diverted to allow the buses to access the various sites quickly.
While his grandfather lives alone in a second floor apartment and walks without assistance, he used a wheelchair because of the extensive amount of walking involved.
After touring the city, the group returned to Baltimore where they enjoyed dinner at the Hilton Hotel. It was 10:30 p.m. when the group arrived back at Logan Airport. Despite the hour, a welcoming committee again awaited them.
“It’s hard to say how amazing it was,” said Anctil.
Once back in Berlin, Vallee’s family held a reception at the Northland Restaurant on May 6 to honor him. Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier attended to convey the city’s appreciation for Vallee’s service.
In eight years, Honor Flight New England has arranged for over 1,600 veterans to make the trip to Washington, D.C.
The program is open to all veterans on a “first-come, first-served basis.” Top priority is currently given to World War II veterans and all other veterans with terminal illness followed by Korean War veterans and then Vietnam War veterans.
For more information on Honor Flights New England go to www.honorflightnewengland.org.