I was on a trip awhile back to Regional Southwest Airport, Fort Myers, to pick up my daughter and her family that were escaping the tundra of the Midwest for a holiday visit.
I was early and meandering about the airport when there was a commotion at the visitors exit ramp on Terminal C and I was drawn toward a rather boisterous assembly of folks waving American Flags the many attired in garb flaunting affiliation with one of the branches of the United States Military.
Upon inquiry, a senior attired in a Navy cap, told me they were there to greet the return from our Nation’s Capital, of a group of honored veterans of World War II who were returning to their homes in Southwest Florida following an “Honor Flight.”
As we spoke, there arrived a single file of seniors, many regaled in uniform pieces being pushed in wheelchairs and struggling with canes as they waved to the waiting crowd of admirers, family and friends.
The uproar from the crowd was spectacular and reeked of the respect and love shown to these warriors, male and female, who fought the battles, manned the ships, flew the planes and cared for the wounded that saved the World, not just the United States from the tyranny of the Axis Powers.
There were lots of tears, pats on the back and military salutes shared that evening and unremovable smiles on the faces of the warriors.
I’ve recalled that evening many times especially when in the company of those who gave so much to keep our world free. Being a charter captain and a fishing advocate enhances that opportunity.
Last month, after running a particularly tough charter trip amid the red tide and algae dilemma, I was cleaning the boat at the slip and heard a voice from up on the dock above … “Hey, captain … can’t believe you’re still at it.”
I looked up and immediately recognized Jim, who was one of a group of WWII veterans, members of the Naples VFW post, who had set up an annual series of monthly fishing trips with me years back that would long be remembered.
I dropped what I was doing and sat down with Jim on a dock bench and we “caught up” with each other and got a rundown on the other three members of the group.
We sat there quietly for a while choking up about memories of those monthly trips and partially tearing up with the news that two of the “Gang of Four” had passed.
Now, Jim and one of the now missing gang, Ralph, had been in the same Air Force B-17 wing operating out of England. They were teenagers that made the daily air strikes on the Axis targets that were super effective in crippling the German war machine but, in turn, suffered horrific losses of crews and equipment. When together, the two of them were joined at the hip especially when it came to marginal fishing skill.
We both laughed aloud when we talked about the struggle just to get this crew in the boat in the morning. I’d have to ask a couple of the marina hands to assist especially in boarding at the docks.
They would tenderly sit on the boat’s gunnel and then awkwardly swing legs inboard while being held by two of us and then plunked down securely on a boat chair or cushion and told not to move.
When all aboard we’d head off to the flattest water we could find and anchor up well away from wake initiating boat traffic. That meant, that most days our fishing exploits would be limited but what was never limited was the camaraderie shared by these members of the Greatest Generation.
On these monthly trips, fishing often slipped to a second priority as war stories and events would be recalled in the backwater quiet that these four helped save. Jim and Ralph, being in the same airwing could even recall individual missions and striking industrial targets deep within Germany and making it back over the Cliffs of Dover with feathered engines. The other two members of the gang were U.S. Marines that participated in brutal Pacific Island battles, were decorated and ended the conflict in Naval Hospitals with injuries.
With all the fifteen or twenty trips we made over multiple seasons, I don’t think, I ever cleaned more than two or three fish. Camaraderie and memories came first. Fishing was just an excuse.
There was one day that remains vivid in my memory to this day. The Collings Foundation who operates refurbished authentic WWII aircraft and provides exhibit and rides in these warbirds annually visits Naples, Marco and conducts two or three days of flights, usually down the coast over the water and returns to land inshore.
Well, here we were sitting just off the Marriott and storytelling one beautiful Saturday morning when we heard the roar of aircraft overhead. Both Jim and Ralph said simultaneously “B17” … the distinctive roar of the laboring engines was unmistakable to both. The beautiful refurbished warbird passed less than 500’ right above us. Jim and Ralph struggled to stand but then snapped a crisp military salute to the trailing bird and held same until if vanished over the horizon.
How do you say, “There wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd” and there wasn’t a word uttered by any of us.”
The Greatest Generation, in my mind, were all heroes, all ready to preserve this country’s wellbeing with their lives; and so many have heeded the call to arms in all subsequent wars, conflicts and skirmishes to offer the same.
Note: Collier-Lee Honor Flight is an all-volunteer group who conducts trips for veterans, free of charge. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Capt. Bill Walsh owns a charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to email@example.com.