Wings for the Greatest Generation
The Honor Flight program gives New Mexico's World War II vets a look at the national memorial built in tribute to them.
By Jeff Berg
As you read this, as many as 101 World War II veterans, all residents of New Mexico, may be in Washington, DC, for a whirlwind tour of the National World War II Memorial.
The memorial, which opened in 2004, honors the 16 million men and women who served in the military during that war. Of that number, 400,000 died on the field of battle. Today, the numbers of the survivors are shrinking as well, perhaps by as many as 900-1,000 nationally per day, according to J.R. Turner, of the New Mexico Department of Veteran's Services. There are currently an estimated 2.3 million World War II veterans still alive in the United States, almost all of whom are at least 80 years old. The oldest, Gertrude Noone, served as a nurse and now, at 110 years of age, lives in Connecticut.
To get New Mexico veterans to the memorial, Honor Flight of Southern New Mexico has done the fundraising and veteran wrangling to take most of the 96 men and 5 women who want to go. The roundtrip to the memorial in Washington, DC, will return the same day, Oct. 7.
This will be the second group of New Mexico veterans to visit the memorial, thanks to Honor Flight. The first went in 2008. An earlier trip for this group had to be postponed due to a lack of funding, but over the last six months or so, numerous generous contributions have made the trip possible.
Honor Flight Network is a national organization that helps provide trips to the nation's capital for the veterans, without any charge to them.
Locally, the southern New Mexico chapter came about when several men were on their way to Elephant Butte for an outing. They were approached by their friend, Judge Robert Brack.
"He said that he wanted to talk to us about this (Honor Flights)," recalls the group's current treasurer, Gary Lenzo. "So, the idea was hatched, but it needed some real commitment to head it up. We thought of Bill Mattiace, who had just lost his bid for reelection as mayor of Las Cruces, so we took him to lunch and said, 'Here is the idea.'"
Mattiace enthusiastically agreed, and has been very successful in getting events organized for fundraising as well as planning the inaugural trip.
"We get calls all the time from families of vets who want to go on the trip," Lenzo adds.
But sometimes life (or death) intervenes. Sadly, several of the veterans who went on the first trip in 2008 have since passed away, as have others who were waiting to go on this trip or a future one.
The veterans who go on the trips are each issued a bright yellow jacket to commemorate their Honor Flight. Lenzo says one man has even asked to be buried in his yellow jacket when his "time" comes.
One of the men in yellow who will be in Washington on Oct. 7 is 87-year-old Charles "Dudley" Merk, a former Navy corpsman. Merk served on active duty for four years, and was stationed in the Pacific Theater, ending up in the Philippines, where construction was then taking place to build a new 5,000-bed hospital.
"It was a huge place," Merk recalls. "It was a fleet hospital, but the war ended before it was finished." He also served on the USS Missouri, but mostly was stationed on APA (Auxiliary Personnel Attack) ships and destroyers.
"After my active duty," he adds, "I spent 16 years in the reserves."
Merk, who enlisted, is originally from St. Paul, Minn., and worked for many years as an area director of sales and service for a railroad line.
"I traveled a lot throughout Canada, and retired when I was 57, and moved to Hillsboro," he says. "My wife and I built our own adobe house there, and made 8,500 adobe bricks by hand for it. She passed away in 1996, and I moved to Las Cruces and lived at Good Sam (the Good Samaritan Retirement Center) for a few years."
Merk, whose friends call him "Dudley," widens his friendly grin and announces proudly, "Then I met and married a younger woman."
He adds, "I still have friends from the service that I keep in touch with. My wife (that younger woman he mentioned) helps me keep in touch with friends in St. Paul, too."
As if she knew she was being talked about, Merk's wife, author Sunnie Bell, appears and joins him, adding some more background about his life and adventures.
Merk shares one last story, a more recent event than his tales of his service time.
"I went skydiving last year in Phoenix," he says with a sly smile and suddenly hushed tone. "I had to answer all these medical questions — do you have diabetes and so on — but I said 'no' to all of them." You can almost feel the "wink" that might have taken place behind his dark sunglasses.
Merk does have diabetes, a new knee and some vision problems, but that didn't stop him from jumping tandem from a plane at 13,000 feet.
"We fell for 8,000 feet and had a very smooth landing," he says.
Merk's Honor Flight to DC should go just as smoothly (although he'll be expected to stay in the airplane for the entire trip). Local Honor Flight organizers have the trip planned down to the minute. The big day is going to start early in the morning, and the group hopes to be back in Las Cruces by 11:30 p.m.
The trip is scheduled to include about 150 people, included two physicians and a number of guardians/helpers. Each of them donated $850 to help out, and will assist three veterans apiece during the trip. About a dozen of the vets rely on wheelchairs, making careful planning even more important.
"The guardians act as protectors, advisors, tour guides, and help watch for medical situations," Turner of the state veterans office explains. "You have to remember that most of these guys (and gals) are in their 80s and 90s."
To donate or for more information on Honor Flight of New Mexico, visit www.honorflightnewmexico.com, email email@example.com or call 521-1400 in Las Cruces, and ask for Bill. Donations can also be sent directly to Honor Flight of Southern New Mexico, in care of Community Foundation of Southern New Mexico, 301 S. Church St., Ste. H, Las Cruces, NM 88001.
Senior writer Jeff Berg lives in Las Cruces.