A Homecoming seven decades later

When Henry Gurney returned home after serving in World War II, there was no crowd or parade trumpeting his return. His parents met him at the station and he went home. On Saturday, 68 years after the end of the war, he and six other veterans received the homecoming they missed.

Gurney was among a contingent of local veterans who were flown to Washington D.C. and honored for the service and sacrifice during World War II. He was joined by Charles Austin, Conrad Peterson, Paul Gordon, Tony DiFlebba, Earl Morrow and Bob Lewis.

During the trip, which was sponsored by the Honor Flight Network—a non-profit organization that transports veterans to and from Washington D.C.—the group visited the World War II Monument and Arlington National Cemetery.

“It was quite an experience,” said Gurney, who served in the Army and saw action in some of the most hellacious battles of the war. “It was certainly a day to be remembered.”

The seven men met at American Legion Post 83 shortly after 4 a.m. last Saturday and the post’s color guard saw the group off as they loaded a van and headed to Plattsburgh.

Once in Plattsburgh, the group met other World War II veterans from Warren County—36 in all—and headed to Plattsburgh International Airport.

“At every intersection there were firemen and police saluting us,” Gurney said. “When we got to the terminal, you wouldn’t believe the crowd. Everyone was so enthusiastic to greet us.”

Before boarding the planes, each veteran’s name, branch of service, and decorations were read aloud.

“It was an outstanding ovation. I was overcome emotionally,” said Conrad Peterson, who was a member of the 1st Marine Division stationed in the Pacific during the war.

Every man received a hat, tee-shirt and jacket emblazoned with “North Country Honor Flight.” They also received personalized letters thanking them for their service. Volunteers even arranged to have Peterson’s daughter send him a letter, a gesture that he joked would force him to put her back in his will.  

After leaving Plattsburgh, the men were flown into Maryland where they then boarded a bus and headed off to the capital.

The first stop was the World War II monument. With the exception of Austin, who was stationed in Northern Virginia and “was very familiar with D.C.,” and Gurney who visited the monument when it was dedicated, none of the men had visited the site.

“There were hundreds and hundreds of people, not only for us, but just visiting the monument. The atmosphere was exciting,” Peterson said. “Nice isn’t the word, it was overwhelming.

“It’s something everyone—those who served and those who didn’t—should see.”

After driving by the Iwo Jima monument, the veterans visited Arlington National Cemetery, where they arrived just in time to see the changing of the guard.

“The precision was magnificent. The mechanics—they looked like robots. It was quite lovely,” Peterson said.

The entire trip, crowds of onlookers—many of whom weren’t even born during World War II—expressed their gratitude for the men’s service.

“The reception was great everywhere we went,” Austin said. “It was wonderful. People were greeting us and shaking our hands.”

“It was like an all-day homecoming,” Gurney reflected. “Most of us never had a homecoming….that made up for it.”

The final stop of the itinerary was a Legion Post in Maryland, where the veterans were served a pasta dinner before they boarded the plane to head home.

Waiting for them in Plattsburgh was yet another group of well-wishers who were undeterred by the late hour (it was nearly midnight before they landed).

On the drive back to Whitehall, the men were able to reflect on trip.

They were all amazed by the coordination or the volunteers.

“The logistics were something else. It went off with military precision. Every detail was covered,” Gurney said.

Peterson said the trip was a special moment in their all their lives.

“We all agreed, we would cherish this for as long as God will let us,” he said. “The World War II veteran is disappearing. Eight hundred to 1,000 men and women die each day.

It’s a common experience that has to be shared.”

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