Honoring the brave

A dream takes flight, giving Central Coast WWII veterans a meaningful Tour of Honor

Honor Flight Video - Posted by Earl Morse on YouTube.com


click to enlarge Honoring the brave
THE TRAILBLAZER: Arroyo Grande resident Ruth Gwin, 94, a WWII and Korean War veteran, is eagerly awaiting the first Honor Flight from the newly designated Central Coast California hub.

Ruth Gwin’s 22nd birthday was also “a date which will live in infamy.”

Having the attack on Pearl Harbor fall on Gwin’s birthday, Dec. 7, 1941, motivated the young legal secretary in Pittsburgh, Penn., to stand up for freedom as one of the first women to serve in World War II.

“They can use us just as well as the men,” said the now 94-year-old, who is a resident of Arroyo Grande. “I really felt that that was my patriotic duty.”

The trailblazing Gwin enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in May of 1942, and was soon in uniform at basic training at the first WAAC training center in Fort Des Moines, Iowa.

By 1943, she had top-secret clearance and was working with a high-ranking intelligence official at the U.S. Embassy in London.

“I was a corporal by that time; two stripes,” Gwin said.

The German bombings on London became part of her daily existence. Sadly, her Scottish terrier was killed in a V2 rocket attack that demolished several buildings.

And she still remembers the distinct noise of the bombs raining down around her in 1944’s “Baby Blitz.”

After the war, while working as a secretary at RKO Pictures in Hollywood, Gwin said she joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve because she “didn’t have anything to do on a Tuesday night.”

She was invited to the White House, where she stood next to President Harry Truman while he signed The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948.

In 1950, as a master sergeant, Gwin was called to active duty at the Pentagon during the Korean War.

The photogenic, dark-haired beauty also graced the cover of the sheet music for “The Girls Are Marching,” a 1952 recruiting song for women in the military.

Now a rosy-cheeked great grandmother who gives lots of hugs, Gwin has lived in the Five Cities since 1985, proudly flying her American flag outside her home, and photos from her service hang on the walls inside.

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VETERANS VISIT: A group of California veterans made a somber sojourn to the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 2013 as part of a trip organized by the Honor Flight Network.
Recently she heard about a nonprofit group called the Honor Flight Network escorting war veterans like herself to the nation’s capital to visit the monuments and war memorials that honor their service and sacrifice.

Gwin contacted the group, filled out an application, and will likely be among the first veterans to fly out of San Luis Obispo in May from the newly designated Central Coast California Honor Flight hub.

 “I’m thrilled to pieces! Absolutely thrilled to pieces,” Gwin said. “I keep hoping that I’m going to live long enough to do it. I’m working on it.”

She is particularly interested in visiting the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, being a charter member of the foundation that spearheaded the memorial honoring the 2.5 million U.S. women who have served in the armed services.

Gwin expects it will be an emotion-filled experience.

“I think so, because the service meant an awful lot to me,” she said.

“I’ve always been patriotic.”


In honor of all who served

The national Honor Flight Network, with regional hubs in nearly every state, recently approved a new hub serving San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

Central Coast California hub’s inaugural three-day Honor Flight “Tour of Honor” to Washington, D.C., will take off May 13 from the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport.

Templeton native Greg McGill spearheaded the local efforts to finally get Honor Flight off the ground on the Central Coast.

The 26-year-old Kern County firefighter traveled in 2012 with Honor Flight out of Bakersfield as part of the medical staff.

“I went on the trip—it really changed my life,” McGill said. “I wanted to see this now happening on the Central Coast.”

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THE PROTECTOR: WWII fighter pilot Vern Black recollected his time in the armed forces to the Sun in his Pismo Beach home. “We had a policy in the Air Force, ‘If you’re in it—win it! And, dammit, show some accomplishment; show some victories,’” he said.
He witnessed the patriotic veterans—many of whom waited seven decades to make the trip—finally lay eyes on their memorial.

“To them, it’s not just some rocks and stones stacked together,” McGill said. “It symbolizes what they did for this country and why we are free.”

McGill, along with his dad, Bear, the founding chairman of the local Honor Flight board, and other volunteers, has started calling on the community to help raise the funds to sponsor as many local veterans as possible.

“The veterans, in our opinion, have already paid the ultimate price; they already ‘wrote their check’ to go see the memorial, and that’s why we make it free to them. They don’t pay for anything,” McGill emphasized.

One member of the Estrella Warbird Museum in Paso Robles has already donated $10,500 to the Central Coast Honor Flight organization—enough money to fly seven veterans.

“All our donations … go straight to flying World War II veterans,” McGill said. “It costs us about $1,500 to fly one veteran.

“We have over 35 World War II veterans who are waiting to go, and, unfortunately, we only have enough funds to fly about 12 veterans right now,” he added. “We’re trying to get that number increased.”

World War II veterans have top priority, and those who are terminally ill are moved to the front of the line.

Organizers want to continue the Honor Flight program long enough to fly veterans from the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and eventually more recent wars as well.

But first, organizers need to get the word out to World War II veterans who live on the Central Coast so they can apply to come along on one of this year’s anticipated flights.

“I know Santa Barbara County has a high concentration of veterans, and I’m sure there are plenty more in San Luis Obispo County that still haven’t heard of us,” McGill said.


He was ‘In it to win it!’

Santa Maria native Vern Black, 93, flew on a Kern County-organized Honor Flight last year.

The retired U.S. Army Air Forces lieutenant colonel and Pismo Beach resident served the United States in two theaters of war during World War II, in England and in China.

Black flew 28 missions, logging more than 1,000 hours in a twin-engine P-38 Lightning.

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GUEST OF HONOR: WWII pilot Vern Black, 93, of Pismo Beach (left) and his Honor Flight guardian, Jay Connor, went to Washington, D.C., last year during an Honor Flight “Tour of Honor.”
“That’s my favorite! I love that plane … because it saved me! One time in China with the Flying Tigers, I took an anti-aircraft hit over Shanghai. It took out a complete left engine. I still have a scar or two,” he said, brushing his face.

“But, still, I was able to have enough electrical lines in there to feather that prop and come back on one [engine]. I came back 400 miles and made a single engine landing,” Black dramatically recalled. “People say, ‘Why do you like the P-38 over the [single-engine] P-51?’ Both are great fighters, but the P-38 will bring you home.”

While a pilot based in England, Black did a lot of reconnaissance work, flying at high altitudes with a 40-inch telephoto lens attached to the front of his plane in lieu of armament.

During one mission, he flew unarmed deep over enemy lines near Berlin, taking detailed photographs of an important target: one of the factories manufacturing the German Messerschmitt Me 262 fighter jets.

On two occasions in 1944, Black was given orders to fly along the coast of France to take photos of the beaches of Normandy.

“Later I found out—this is pre-invasion—they’re trying to get the tides for the [D-Day] invasion,” he said.

In May of 1948, he was honorably discharged from the Air Force. Then he immediately joined the California Highway Patrol, retiring more than three decades later as field commissioner. Black said he spent his entire career “protecting those that need protecting.”

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WHITE HOUSE PHOTO OP: President Harry Truman signed The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948. Arroyo Grande resident Ruth Gwin stood third from the left behind Truman.
He said visiting the memorials last year with fellow World War II veterans was more difficult than anticipated. Some veterans have gone 70 years without talking about the horrors they experienced during the war.

“It can be kind of emotional and sad,” Black revealed. “Some of the guys in wheelchairs were crying.”

The hardest thing for Black to see was the National World War II Memorial that honors the 16 million who served, and bears the names of the 400,000 Americans who were killed in action.

“Just two big walls of nothing but names and names and names and names and names,” Black whispered in his deep voice.

Jay Connor, a Central Coast Honor Flight board member and U.S. Army veteran, believes wholeheartedly in Honor Flight’s mission.

“We owe it to these brave men and women who gave us our freedoms to give them the dignity and courtesy to provide this opportunity for them,” Connor said. “When you’re in the presence of these people … you just can’t thank them enough.”

Honoring the brave
HONOR FLIGHT CONTACTS: For more information on Honor Flight, to apply for the trip, or to donate, go online to HonorFlight.org or call Bear McGill at 610-4012. The group’s local email address is [email protected]. Donations can be mailed to Honor Flight Central Coast California, P.O. Box 1750, Paso Robles, CA, 93447.
None of these heroes has asked for recognition, but they deserve it. And time is of the essence. According to Honor Flight leaders, America’s World War II veterans are passing away at a rate of 650 per day.

“For a lot of these veterans, this is like the last period, the last sentence, the last paragraph of their life,” Connor said.

World War II warrior Black appreciates the efforts of younger generations to honor him and fellow veterans who were prepared to sacrifice themselves for the country they love.

“Somebody recognizes that you were ‘in it to win it!’ Somebody recognizes that freedom is not free—you have to go and fight for it!” Black said.


Contributing columnist Wendy Thies Sell writes the Sun’s weekly wine and food column. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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