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Palm Beach Post Story

South Florida WWII veterans honored with free trip to Washington

WASHINGTON — “This is something spectacular,” said Frank Calzaretta, a World War II veteran from Delray Beach, sitting in his wheelchair under the Pacific arch of the World War II Memorial and staring at the fountains and granite pillars before him.

Although not new to the nation’s capital, he was visiting the memorial for the first time Saturday, as were several of the 85 World War II veterans from South Florida with him who ranged in age from 83 to nearly 100.

“They treated us like kings,” Calzaretta said in praise of Southeast Florida Honor Flight, which organized and sponsored the trip.

He and his fellow veterans were escorted by motorcycles and saluted by firefighters on their way to Palm Beach International Airport, where they boarded their D.C.-bound flight at the break of dawn to the cheers of a festive crowd and the sounds of a Scottish bagpipe band.

“We got here in Washington, D.C., we got off the plane and I started crying,” the Navy veteran said. “I had never been applauded before.”

“Congressman (Allen) West was at the plane to greet us,” chimed in Thomas Kaiser, an Army veteran from Delray Beach and former boot camp mate of Calzaretta.

Since 2005, the nonprofit Honor Flight program has flown more than 30,000 World War II veterans from across the country to Washington at no cost to honor them for their service.

Before visiting the World War II Memorial, the 85 veterans, each accompanied by a volunteer, attended the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Arlington breaks me up,” Calzaretta said, his tone now somber. “You see all these thousands of crosses. We haven’t achieved a goddamn thing in all these years. We’re still dying. It’s such a loss of life.”

Army veteran Leonard Taylor of Pompano Beach agreed: “You think back to a lot of the things you don’t talk or think about.”

Unlike his companions, Army veteran George Bernstein of Boynton Beach wasn’t reminded of the war when he looked at the monument.

“It’s so unusual and clean looking,” he said. “We don’t have anything like this in Florida.”

Wearing red caps and blue T-shirts provided by Southeast Florida Honor Flight, the veterans rolled along the monument’s walkways in their wheelchairs, also provided by the organization.

Before they headed back to the airport to return to Florida, they spoke with former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who came to meet them. Dole, badly injured in World War II, is one of the main fundraisers for the World War II Memorial.

“It’s the best thing I’ve had in many, many years,” Taylor said. “The people who organize this are doing a wonderful thing. We don’t have many more years to be around to see this.”

Published in The Palm Beach Post.

 

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