Over a lunch of turkey sandwiches and potato chips in an airplane hangar, 14 veterans of VA-65, an all-weather bomber attack squadron, gathered at the 20th annual Salute to Veterans Air Show to celebrate Memorial Day.
It didn’t bother them that the wind and rain had grounded the planes.
“I’m wonderful, regardless of the weather,” said Walt Flanagan of Conyers, Ga. “I’m still gonna smile.”
For each of the past six years, the group of veterans has reunited to celebrate the time they served together at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach from 1965 to 1969. Chris Egbert, a VA-65 veteran and retired Columbia police captain, proposed that the group meet this year at the air show.
“People around here are walking history books,” Flanagan said. “You look across this hangar, and you can see people of various ages and ethnic groups. But there is one common ground: Every one of us put on a uniform for our country, and that makes us brothers and sisters.”
Yet, on this holiday, it is those who are not there who are on the minds of those present.
“To me, it is one of the only days in the entire year where a large number of people remember the soldiers who have died for this country,” said David Root, of Elyria, Ohio. “It takes a holiday to make people stop and think about it.”
Although VA-65 was primarily stationed at Oceana, the group was called to the Gulf of Tonkin during the war in Vietnam. Several of the veterans at Saturday’s gathering were aboard the USS Forrestal on July 29, 1967, when a missile misfired, igniting the ship.
Rick Fellows of Tupelo, Miss., was in his bunk, having just come back from a flight over Vietnam when he heard what sounded like a thunderclap. The impact of the explosion knocked him onto the deck. When he made it up to the flight deck, he saw the fire.
“It was chaotic,” Fellows said. “But we all knew that if the fire wasn’t put out, we were all going to die.”
Fellows and others worked frantically to keep the fire from spreading to bombs that had been loaded on the carrier the night before. Although the blaze was eventually extinguished and the ship saved, 134 men died, including Buck Geller, an ordnance officer on the ship and a friend of Fellows’.
Although the fire took place more than 40 years ago, the memory is still fresh, Fellows said.
“To this day, every July 29, the pilots who were there will e-mail each other and talk about what went on,” Fellows said.
It’s just one of the ways the veterans support each other.
“The holiday really stirs up memories of traumatic experiences,” Fellows said. “It makes me feel closer to the people in my life. We’re all on the same level and have to help each other get through the rough times.”
So the veterans came despite the rain and wind to honor the past and cherish the present and to never forget those they lost along the way. “It’s just an opportunity you don’t pass up,” Flanagan said. “You just can’t pass it up.”