Note: John Matthis, a World War II veteran and resident of the Whitaker Glen retirement community in Raleigh, wrote this account of his visit to the World War II Memorial on the first Triangle Flight of Honor trip last month.
Matthis, 90, joined 96 veterans on this trip to Washington to see the memorial, which honors the 16 million men and women who served in the armed forces during the war, the more than 400,000 who died, and all who supported the war effort at home.
Honor Flight chapters have been racing to take every World War II veteran who is willing and able to see the granite plaza that commemorates military sacrifice. The Triangle chapter was launched by the N.C. Automobile Dealers Association.
Excitement was in the air. It was about 7:30 a.m., and 97 World War II veterans, accompanied by their 35 guardians, were milling about the Raleigh-Durham International Airport ready to take the flight of their lifetime, the Triangle Flight of Honor's inaugural trip to the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. A water cannon fired an arch of water in salute as the plane took off Oct. 7.
When the veterans, all dressed in lookalike caps and shirts and ranging in age from 83 to 97, arrived at Reagan National Airport, they were cheered and thanked by a crowd of men, women and children. Later, as they arrived by bus at the World War II memorial they were greeted by another crowd, including Sen. Richard Burr and Rep. Brad Miller.
The veterans from Whitaker Glen were Guy Parsons, Paul Wetmore and John Matthis. Two women were in the group. Dr. James Parsons, the son of Guy Parsons, was the flight surgeon in charge.
In August 1945 I was a crew member aboard a submarine in the Sea of Japan making my seventh successful war patrol in enemy waters; the shortest of these patrols was about 29 days, the longest was more than 65 days. After Japan surrendered we were ordered to proceed into Tokyo Harbor and anchor near the Battleship Missouri, where I was able to see the surrender ceremonies, which took place on the ship's deck on Sept. 2, 1945. The next day we set sail for Portsmouth, N.H., by way of Pearl Harbor and the Panama Canal.
When I was discharged from the Navy on Oct. 22, I decided that I would not discuss my experiences with anyone, and I never talked to members of my family, including my wife and children. They do not know to this day where I went or what I did. The war was over, and I wanted to forget it and get on with my life.
The trip for me was a deeply emotional experience, as I am sure it was for each of the other 96 veterans. When I saw the WWII Memorial, all these memories of the war came rushing in my mind, and it was almost more than I could take.
I walked around the memorial taking in its beauty and the fact that it was built for me and other GIs like me. The thought of it all was so overwhelming. The beauty of the place and the realization that what we had done had changed the world was almost incomprehensible. It was a lot to digest and I am not ashamed to say that I could not keep from shedding some tears; the first of its kind that I have ever experienced. I could take no more, so I left the memorial and found a bench outside where I sat down to think and get a grip on myself.
Soon, an elderly gentleman and his female companion sat down on the bench near me. When I looked up our eyes met, and he said to me, "Are you one of the WWII veterans visiting the memorial here?" I told him that I was. He got up and came over to me and said that he wanted to shake my hand and thank me. He introduced himself and his wife and said that they were from the Netherlands and that I had saved his country during the War and that he would be forever grateful to me.
I explained that I had been in the Pacific and had not fought in the European theater. He said he didn't mean to thank me personally, that he really meant the United States and that had it not been for the U.S., Germany would have destroyed his country, that he would forever be in our debt. He said we did not ask for anything in return except enough land to bury our dead. After he and his wife left I sat on the bench for some time just to digest all that had taken place. I again realized how fortunate I had been and how thankful that I had made it home safely.
The submarine service had lost 52 boats, 3,505 officers and men, and 22 percent of the force, the highest casualty rate of any part of the Navy. I was glad to be alive.
On the flight back to Raleigh the plane's cabin was much quieter than it had been going to Washington. We all had experienced a full and exciting day and I am sure that most of the men and women wanted some time to think. Upon entering the terminal in Raleigh we were greeted by hundreds of well-wishers, but I was too tired to really enjoy the festivities. It had been a wonderful day, one that I will not soon forget. My sincere thanks and appreciation go to the many good people who had made it possible.