WWII Veterans, Nation Mark 80th Anniversary Of Pearl Harbor Attack

American Airlines flies 63 to Honolulu for the 80th anniversary of the event.

American Airlines gave a group of 63 World War II veterans a chance to travel to Honolulu to mark the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Courtesy: American Airlines

Eight decades ago, hundreds of Japanese fighter pilots swarmed the sky over Pearl Harbor, launching a surprise attack that killed 2,403 people and drew the U.S. into World War II. The attack mobilized the U.S. military to unprecedented levels and became a touchstone that forever defined a generation.

December 7, 1941, was indeed a date that would live in infamy.

Gil Nadeau, a 95-year-old Navy veteran, hands out some fist bumps at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Credit: American Airlines

This week, American Airlines along with several organizations, gave a group of 63 World War II veterans the opportunity to travel to Honolulu, Hawaii, to commemorate the anniversary of the attack. 

“We’re tremendously privileged to provide this charter flight and honor these World War II heroes,” said Randy Stillinger, manager of military and veterans initiatives at American. “The youngest of the veterans is 93 years old, and it was incredibly moving to hear their stories and the sacrifices made to protect our nation.”

Harold Stephens, StTEC5– 246th Signal Operation Company, U.S. Army is all smiles aboard the aircraft. Credit: American Airlines

Among the group of veterans is Elsie “Kitty” Rippin, who performed flight instrument repair work after she enlisted in the WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Service; William "Jim" Seville, who served as an aircraft mechanic and air crewman on OS2U Kingfisher combat missions; and Tom Rice, 100, who served as a paratrooper in World War II. 

Rice recently celebrated centenarian milestone by jumping from the Commemorative Air Force’s C-53D D-Day Doll onto the beach in front of the Hotel del Coronado in his hometown of Coronado, California.

The weeklong event, which began in Dallas on December 2, is also sponsored by the Best Defense Foundation, the Gary Sinise Foundation, Veterans United Home Loans, as well as other organizations, according to the airline.

“It is an incredible honor to join with our most celebrated war heroes, especially when there are so few left,” Donnie Edwards, founder of the Best Defense Foundation, said in a statement. “It’s hard to believe 80 years have passed since that fateful day when Pearl Harbor was so senselessly attacked, but we’re forever grateful to these heroic men and women who so selflessly gave everything they had to defend our American freedom.”

Before leaving Dallas, the group of veterans that included a dozen who were at least 100 years old and six who were at Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack in 1941 were honored with a red carpet walk, a meal curated by chef Robert Irvine and 1940s-era entertainment.

The next day, the vets were honored with a police escort to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (KDFW).

“They received a hero’s welcome at the airport where more than 100 American Airlines team members volunteered to participate in a parade through Terminal D,” the airline said. 

"It was a great honor and privilege to represent my country," retired Marine Neal McCallen told KRLD. "What we did is what the American people wanted us to do, and I think we did a damn good job."

After the celebration at the terminal gate, the veterans boarded a chartered Boeing 787 bound for Honolulu. At the controls was First Officer Nancy Wudtke, daughter of a WWII Army Air Corps veteran onboard.

“My dad is really the reason I’m a pilot today,” Wudtke said. “I grew up around airplanes thanks to his service in the Army Air Corps, so it’s very exciting to be a part of this. I’m honored to take these heroes to Hawaii.”

During the weeklong journey, the group of veterans were to visit:

  • Schofield Barracks
  • Wheeler Army Airfield
  • Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam
  • Ford Island
  • USS Arizona Memorial
  • Battleship Missouri Memorial
  • Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum
  • Marine Corps Base Hawaii
  • National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific

The veterans will return to Dallas on December 9, according to the airline.

The journey back to Pearl Harbor is one of closure and camaraderie for veterans, said Donna Miller, a Boeing 787 first officer for American Airlines. Miller attended some of the events in Dallas this week, including the red carpet event and dinner.

"Kids had made signs and it was just a huge send off," she said. "I think they really felt appreciated, and that's what it's all about."

80th Pearl Harbor Remembrance Commemoration

LIVE: WWII Veterans, friends and family join to commemorate the 80th Anniversary of the Attacks on Pearl Harbor and Oahu. #PearlHarborRemembranceDay #PearlHarbor80

Posted by Pearl Harbor National Memorial on Tuesday, December 7, 2021

In 2016, Miller co-piloted an honor flight to Hawaii for a group of veterans commemorating the 75th anniversary of the attack.

“When I flew the flight, some of [the veterans] had not been back for 75 years,” Miller said. “This was the first time they'd ever been back, so it was really emotional.”

“A lot of them knew that it would be their last trip, and so it was all about closure and commemorating those who were lost,” she said.

Years later, a conversation she had with a Navy diver she met at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial continues to stick with her, illustrating the site's continued significance in the lives of WWII veterans. 

On the day of the event, the diver had interred ashes of a veteran who served on the USS Arizona inside the remains of the bomb-ravaged ship hull that became the final resting place for 1,177 crewmen killed during the attack. Those who served on the ship may elect to have their remains interred with their fellow crew when they die.

"He said that he takes the urn and goes into the ship," without a specific target for where to place it, Miller said. "He said, 'the ship will let me know when she's ready to take her sailor back.'"

Eighty years later, the nation continues to remember those whose lives were irrevocably shaped by war.

"The ranks of Pearl Harbor survivors grow thinner with each passing year," Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Tuesday. "But the memory of their heroism—and our gratitude—still shine bright. They were among the first of the Greatest Generation to taste combat, to know war. And they answered that call to duty with exceptional skill and fortitude."

Kimberly is managing editor of FLYING Digital.

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