Some things people do really do amaze you.

Two groups have done something so profound that it would move even the sturdiest of hearts.

I had the distinct pleasure of accompanying my dad, Frank LoTemplio, on a recent trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Memorial.

This wasn't just a family trip that we decided to take. It was an honor flight, as in Honor Flight Rochester Mission 10.

Honor Flight is an organization formed about five years ago to honor World War II veterans for their tremendous service to our country more than six decades ago.

The organization arranges trips to Washington to visit the World War II memorial and other war commemoration sites in our nation's capital.

It also gives the vets the welcoming that they never got when they returned home from the war.

"They were put on a bus and sent home individually and were on their own," said Vince Hope, president of Honor Flight Rochester.

"They deserve this. After all, all they did was save the world."

As many as 16 million people served in the armed forces during the war; more than 400,000 were killed.

Now, World War II veterans are dying at a rate of about 1,000 per day, making each one of these trips a treasure racing against time.

My father joined the Army Air Corps in early 1942, just months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and a few months before his 19th birthday.

An uncle who worked on the local draft board had told my dad that he had about two months before he would be drafted.

Not wanting to get stuck with some crappy duty, my dad sought to enlist in the Navy. But he was told that he was color blind and rejected.

"Color blind. Like hell," he said in recalling the moment.

So he moved on to the Army Air Corps, which gladly accepted him, no hue about it.

After attending basic training in Miami Beach, Fla., my dad eventually found himself on the way to the Pacific Ocean to fight the Japanese.

He was assigned as a sidegunner in a B-24 bomber, flying numerous missions over enemy territory.

Some of the trips weren't pretty, as Japanese fighter planes known as Zeroes blasted away at them at high altitudes.

My dad and his buddies did their best to shoot back, despite the gut-wrenching fear that they could be blown out of the sky at any moment.

Being on the ground was no picnic, either.

On his first day on what seemed a beautiful tropic island, he suddenly noticed everyone was running around yelling.

"I was wondering what the heck was going on, and someone grabbed me and threw me to the ground and said, 'They're bombing us,'" he said. "I shook for a week."

The Japanese made a habit of bombing the airfields where my dad's unit was stationed, which made for plenty of nervous nights.

When I was a kid, whenever there was a full moon in the summer, my dad would sit outside as if he was still on patrol.

"Full moon. Bomber's night," he would say.

Who could sleep with that on your mind?

Dad eventually got transferred to a fighter squadron and got a job maintaining aircraft. He was done flying but still had to deal with attacks on the airfields.

He recalled one time when a Japanese fighter plane strafed the area they were on near the beach.

"The rule was never run into the water when a plane came because that was the area they usually strafed," he said.

"This one time, I don't know why, but for some reason I decided to run into the water instead of inland and — wouldn't you know it? — that was the one time they fired inland, and some guys got hit. I might not be here if I had done what I was supposed to do."

As the war approached an end, my father's unit made its way to Japan and was one of the first to occupy the mainland after the surrender.

He still has photographs of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was detonated.

"It was like a huge wind came and just blew everything down," he said. "I've never seen anything like it."

After the war, Dad made his way home alone on a train, sick with malaria he had caught in the jungle — the illness had sprung up five times during his three years in the war.

A friend met him at the station and helped him home in the predawn hours of a Rochester morning in late 1945.

No marching bands, no hero's welcome, no pats on the back.

But Honor Flight would change all of that.

My mother, Sarah LoTemplio, heard about Honor Flight and submitted my dad's name to participate late last year.

He finally got the call in April that he would be going June 19.

His friend Louis Iacona, a Navy veteran from Rochester, also got the call.

Veterans fly for free on Honor Flight, which is funded by donations.

It costs about $30,000 to conduct a flight and takes dozens of volunteers.

Hope told us about 500 veterans have flown out of Rochester on the 10 flights in the past 18 months since the Rochester hub was formed.

There are 90 hubs in 34 states across the country. The closest to the North Country is in Albany.

Each veteran is assigned a "guardian." A family member or friend can be a guardian for the reasonable donation of $300.

Dad chose me, and I gladly jumped at the chance. I also got to serve as guardian for Iacona.

All guardians attended a two-hour preflight meeting on the day before the trip to get briefed on the mission details.

Hope, who struck me as Rochester's version of the North Country's Gordie Little, with his enthusiasm for storytelling, spectacles and scratchy voice, covered just about every conceivable thing that could happen on a flight, interjecting dozens of times the reminder to make sure your veteran drinks plenty of water.

With temperatures forecast for 93 degrees in Washington the day we were to arrive, his warning was right on the mark.

Since most of the veterans are in their mid to late 80s or even early 90s, proper medical precautions are a must.

Honor Flight arranges to have a wheelchair available for every veteran.

"If they use a walker, they go in a wheelchair," Hope said. "If they use a cane, they go in a wheelchair. If they can walk but can't keep up, they go in a wheelchair."

Hope explained that many veterans think they are "John Wayne" and can walk all day but find themselves needing a wheelchair at some point.

On the day of the flight, we arrived at Rochester International Airport at 5 a.m., greeted by dozens of Honor Flight volunteers wearing bright yellowish-green T-shirts with the Will Rogers quote: "We can't all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as the heroes go by."

All veterans were given a burnt-orange button-down shirt with "Rochester Honor Flight Veteran" dashed across the chest.

Guardians wore a lighter shade of orange, marked with their rank.

"All these other groups have these flimsy T-shirts, but we spend a buck or two more, and when the Rochester group arrives, people know it," Hope said.

On board the Air-Tran 717 jet, as all 55 veterans and the 50 guardians were settling in, Hope delivered a surprise.

"Mail call," he bellowed into the plane's intercom.

Flight Leaders Paul Mannella, Matt Barnum and Carole Ann Lee handed out brown envelopes to each veteran after shouting out their name, just like mail call during the war.

Each envelope contained letters from students at Pine Brook Elementary School in Rochester, written in previous weeks. Each letter was addressed specifically to each veteran and included adorable drawings from the kids.

"This is amazing," Dad said. "That's really something."

When we arrived at BWI Airport in Baltimore, a group of active-duty military members were in the terminal to give the veterans a howling welcome.

As the aging vets marched off the plane, they were greeted with shouts of "Thank you" and hearty handshakes. Several veterans reached for their handkerchiefs.

"It really brings a lump to your throat," Iacona said.

I was glad I was wearing sunglasses.

We boarded a bus for the nearly one-hour ride to Washington to first visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. We watched the impressive changing of the guard at the tomb in silence as the veterans paused to remember friends who did not make it home, the stifling heat adding to the intensity of the moment.

The next stop was the World War II Memorial itself on the mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

The World War II Memorial opened in 2005 after years of controversy over where to put it. Honor Flight was developed around that time as a way of giving the veterans it was erected for a chance to see it.

"Otherwise, a lot of these guys never would get a chance to see their own memorial," Hope said.

The memorial is an impressive circular design with 50 cement columns honoring each state.

All 55 of our veterans gathered in front of the New York column for a photo opportunity.

As they posed, visitors assembled little by little to check out this group of gray-haired men and two women, who were all standing proud.

When the shutters stopped clicking, the crowd broke out into hearty applause.

Strangers went up to each veteran and thanked them for their service, their eyes moist and their voices cracking.

One man from Ohio came up to my dad and Iacona and explained that his father, too, was a World War II veteran and that they were planning to take an Honor Flight later in the year.

Talking with the stranger from Ohio sparked memories of when Iacona joined the Navy. He had suffered a childhood affliction that left him with a noticeable scar on his back. His mother, worried about losing her son, wanted him to stay out of the service.

When the doctor grilled him about his childhood illness, Iacona insisted he was fine.

"I would have felt so guilty the rest of my life If I didn't go," he said. "That would have been difficult, and I couldn't live with that."

Iacona did go, and he served as an electrician aboard an LST ship in the Pacific for three years.

When I asked my dad and Iacona what it felt like to be treated as heroes, they scoffed at the notion.

"We didn't have a choice," my dad said.

"We just did our jobs," Iacona added.

Hope said such modesty is typical of World War II veterans.

"A lot of them don't think they are heroes because all they did was fix planes, cook meals or train troops," he said. "Well, how do you think we won the war? They all did their part, and every little bit did make a difference, so they are heroes."

On board the bus after visiting the World War II Memorial, trip leaders handed out box lunches of sandwiches, chips and fruit.

"No Spam?" one smart-aleck GI shouted out.

After visiting the Korean War, Vietnam War and Air Force memorials, the veterans headed back to the Hilton Hotel in Baltimore.

On the ride over, I heard some veterans talking about how they were glad the war ended when it did; otherwise, the United States would have had to invade Japan.

"They were ready for us with those guns in the mountains," one fellow said. "I don't think we would be here today if we'd had to do that."

Historians suggest that the United States could have lost as many as 1 million soldiers if they'd had to invade the mainland.

At the banquet that evening, Hope told stories of how veterans who served together and had not seen each other for decades happened to bump into each other on Honor Flights.

"Imagine seeing the guy who saved your life 65 years ago standing next to you just a few feet away, and you had no idea he was going to be there," Hope said.

When the flight returned home to Rochester on Sunday morning, Hope told us, the really cool stuff was just beginning.

A crowd of about 800 family, friends and respectful community members had gathered to truly provide a hero's welcome.

A band blasted patriotic tunes, and people waved flags and screeched for their heroes as they proudly strolled through the airport.

Hope closed the trip by hosting a moving ceremony that featured speeches of thanks from several veterans who had gone on previous Honor Flights.

At the end, Hope called up all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of each veteran to the front of the room.

"This is what we would not have had if you had not done what you did for us," Hope said as he gestured to the crowd of about 50 children.

"You saved the world."

E-mail Joe LoTemplio at: jlotemplio@pressrepublican.com

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