Utah Honor Flight flies two Parkites to Washington, D.C.
Since 2005, the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit organization, has been on a mission to recognize American veterans by taking them to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials that honor their service and sacrifices.
The Utah Honor Flight, established in 2007, selected two Park City residents — Ralph Gates and Ben Vallor — for trips this year.
Gates, 91, went in May and Vallor, who will turn 94 on Nov. 7, went in September. The two, who are World War II veterans, sat down with The Park Record to talk about these excursions that they would never forget.
“Everything was wildly celebrated,” Gates said. “It was quite nice, although it seems so long ago that I went.”
The itinerary for both started at the Salt Lake International Airport, where Governor Gary Herbert greeted their groups.
“He went down the line and shook our hands,” Gates said.
Upon arriving in Washington, D.C. the veterans were told to remain on the plane until their names were called, according to Vallor.
“When they called us, we were put in wheelchairs,” he said.
The veterans’ personal guides pushed the wheelchairs. Vallor’s guide was his daughter Joan. Gates’ guide was his friend Craig Sherman, a Vietnam War vet.
“We were all told to sit in the wheelchairs and then they strapped us in so we couldn’t get out,” Gates said, laughing. “They we were pushed through the airport and all of these people applauded and came and shook our hands.”
The typical Honor Flight schedule include many meals, presentations and tours, including, but not limited to, visiting the National Mall, the World War II Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial.
“It was raining when I was there, so we didn’t get to the Vietnam Memorial, but the one I enjoyed the most was the Korean War Memorial,” Gates said. “It had [sculptures of] soldiers in heavy garb and they were in a muddy mess, so you could see what a hard time they had.”
One of Vallor’s favorite places to visit was Fort McHenry for a flag ceremony and lunch.
“I don’t know how to describe it, but it is all green and beautifully laid out,” he said. “That’s where Francis Scott Key wrote the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ and I’m surprised I remember that, because when you get to be my age, you start to lose things.”
Gates said his visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum was his favorite.
“They had the replica of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, and that was something to me because I had been a part of that project,” he said.
Gates volunteered to join the U.S. Army when he turned 18 in 1943.
“I wanted to volunteer because my daddy volunteered for World War I, and I was afraid that they would have drafted me and put me in the Navy,” he said. “I knew if they did that, I’d be in trouble, because I couldn’t swim very well.”
Gates had completed two terms of engineering school at Vanderbilt University at that time and the Army told him to stay in school.
“I had no idea about the Manhattan Project, which had been going on for about a year,” he said. “But more than a year later, the Army called me back.”
After basic training and infantry replacement training in Alabama and additional training in New York, was transported to the site of the former Los Alamos Ranch School for boys in New Mexico, where he worked on the research that would eventually become the inner workings of the atomic bomb.
“We came from everywhere and thought we were going to engage the enemy on the West Coast, but ended up being laboratory assistants to all of these brilliant physicists,” he said. “We got into a room and were told that we would be working on a ‘new type of bomb.’ I worked there casting high-explosive lenses until the war was over.”
Vallor’s World War II experience started in 1943 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy’s V-12 program.
“The V-12 program would send you to a major university for two years, and they would pay us $90 a month and we had free board,” he said.
The Navy sent Vallor to M.I.T. for two years and then to Columbia University for officer training.
After the Allied victory became evident in Europe in 1944, the Navy focused on post-war discharging needs and Vallor was sent to cooking school, and then assigned to the commissary of the Washington, D.C., Naval Base.
“We were a processing base right in the center of the city,” he said. “People would enlist and they would send them there for assignments, or people would come there to be discharged.”
The base would house up to 12,000 people at a time.
“My unit consisted of cooks and bakers and a city-block-large freezer,” Vallor said with a laugh. “I was 21 at the time and was there for about a year and a half.”
Unfortunately, when Vallor returned to Washington during the Honor Flight, he found no record about the Washington, D.C., Naval Base.
“The guides whom I met didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “I can understand, because I was there 70 years ago, but I would have liked to have seen it again.”
Both Gates and Vallor are thankful for the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., and are grateful to those who donate to the Honor Flight Network.
“I found it interesting that the money needed for these trips doesn’t come from the government,” Vallor said. “It comes from the public and corporate donors.
“I’m happy to see that Utah is in the forefront of this,” he said. “I think this is a fantastic program.”
“It shows that there is someone who appreciates your efforts, and I appreciate that,” he said.
For more information about the Honor Flight Network, visit http://www.honorflight.org. For more information about the Utah Honor Flight, visit ww.utahhonorflight.org.
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