West Valley veterans visit war memorials

By Rusty Bradshaw
Independent Newsmedia

Sun City resident Mike Colacarro has an abundance of enthusiasm for the national Honor Flight program.

Sun City Grand residents Bill, left, and Gerry Martin pause at part of the Vietnam memorial during their trip to Washington, D.C. through the Honor Flight program.

It shown like a beacon during his telling of the April trip he made through the program as an escort. The trip included five Northwest Valley veterans.

“We should do anything we can for those who served,” Mr. Colacarro said.

The root of his enthusiasm for the project comes from his father’s service. He served in a machine gun squad in World War II. His family knew very little about his experiences in the war until one Thanksgiving when he was about 70 he gave the family a diary to read. They were also able to view a video made from old home movies of the elder Mr. Colacarro and his buddies during the war.

“Most World War II veterans didn’t talk much about their experiences, even to their families,” Mr. Colacarro said. “But they have plenty of stories to tell.”

Those stories came pouring out during the April Honor Flight, he added.

Mr. Colacarro told of Sun City Grand resident Bill Martin, who was a tail gunner on a B-29 bomber. He related that during survival training in California his group became lost in seep snow. The came across a farm house whose residents felt so sorry for the young soldiers they went to town, bought pork and beans and cooked them for them back at the house.

Sun City West resident John Thomas, left, and Sun City resident Mike Colacarro give their snappiest slautes at the World War II memorial during the April Honor Flight.

Mr. Martin also told a story of a rat being in one of the bombers but they couldn’t find it on the ground. So the crew took the plane up and flew to 30,000 where the air was too thin to breath. While the crew had oxygen masks, the rat did not. Mr. Martin, in the tail gun position, reached around a barrier to retrieve a tool but found the rat instead.

“He threw it out of the gun compartment and that was the last they saw of the rate,” Mr. Colacarro said. “But they had no mission of flight plan; it was just a flight to kill a rat.”

Gerry Martin, also a Sun City Grand resident and not related to Bill, served from 1955-58 at Fort Bliss, Texas. He related how things have changed, saying he was paid $85 per month while in the Army.

Gerry Martin was married for more than 60 years to the same woman.

“I got it right the first time,” he told Mr. Colacarro.

Sun City West resident John Thomas was a forward observer, radioing information for air support for the ground troops. He was so close to the action that as American planes flew over firing their guns, the empty shell casings would fall among the forward observers.

Mr. Thomas told Mr. Colacarro he always wanted to meet those pilots and thank them. On a trip, he met a woman who said he husband was a pilot, so Mr. Thomas wrote him a letter of thanks.

“He got a return letter from the pilot who said in 20 years he had never been thanked,” Mr. Colacarro said.

Mr. Thomas had a shoulder operation months ago and wore a sling throughout the Honor Flight tour.

“But he never complained and only used a wheelchair on occasion,” Mr. Colacarro said. “I was his wheel man so spent most of the day with him.”

Eugene Merritt, also a Sun City Grand resident, served 1954-56 as a chaplain’s assistant and company clerk. After his military service he attended the Graduate School Seminary and the Royal School of Church Music in London, according to Mr. Colacarro. He was married to his wife 63 years.

Surprise resident Jerry Freeman with an unidentified veteran on their way to the next stop on the April Honor Flight tour in Washington, D.C.

Surprise resident Jerry Freeman was talked into completing high school because he had a job offer from Bell Telephone but had to graduate to get it, according to Mr. Colacarro. He worked three years and then was drafted. He went to splicing school and later talked his commanding officer into a three-day pass to go home to Flint, Michigan to get married. His future wife did all the planning, he showed up to get married then returned to his base.

“His school graduated and he and another guy were sent to Alaska, where he was the entire war,” Mr. Colacarro explained. “The next class were all sent to Hawaii.”

Mr. Thomas related the first few months in Alaska the temperature was never over 25 degrees below zero. After serving two years as a corporal, he and his wife moved to Mesa for what was planned to be only one year in Arizona.

“He saw an ad for Sunflower RV Resort offering free $10 worth of gas, so drove over for the freebie,” Mr. Colacarro explained. “It turned into 35 years. They were married 67 years and adopted three children.”

This was Mr. Colacarro’s second Honor Flight as an escort, the first from Seattle in which there were only World War II veterans.

“Each trip was similar, but different in some ways,” he said.

Mr. Colacarro said the meal roundtables on the trip were the best opportunities to hear the history of the veterans, as that was when they opened up the most.

Mr. Colacarro, a 10-year Sun City resident, is a retired high school teacher from Seattle, who coordinated school assemblies that focused on military veterans. He also served in the Army after being drafted in the fist draft lottery in December 1969. He received basic training at Fort Lewis in Washington and was then assigned there for 10 months.

“After that through pure luck I was sent to South Korea instead of Vietnam,” he said.

Honor Flight has chapters in 46 states. The Arizona chapter conducts five flights each in the fall and spring, according to Mr. Colacarro. Escorts pay their own expenses for the trips, while the honored veterans’ expenses are funded through sponsorships. The national Honor Flight Network has only two paid employees, with the rest serving as volunteers, according to Mr. Colacarro. The Arizona chapter is operated entirely by volunteers.

Visit www.honorflightaz.org.

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