‘Greatest Generation’ honored by Knights

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It was raining gently Sept. 29 as 35 former soldiers slowly came off the bus at the entrance to the Columbus Club at E.D. White Knights of Columbus council home in Arlington. Some used canes, and many were guided off the bus by volunteer helpers.

The driver opened the storage area and handed wheelchairs and walkers to volunteers who helped the veterans from the New England Honor Flight contingent navigate the receiving line that greeted them. In addition, there were about 70 family, friends and support people on the trip.

The soldiers, veterans of World War II and the Korean War, came by charter bus from Boston Sept. 27 to Washington to see the monuments, especially their own, the National World War II Memorial. The group laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. They visited the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials and toured the U.S. Capitol. Their arrival at the council home for dinner was their final event in the Washington area, before their return to New England.

The Knights have been serving meals to Honor Flight participants for about five years. Knight Owen Beirne, whose father served in World War II, has been organizing these dinners since the beginning when an Honor Flight official contacted him to see if the council could help with a lunch. His father served in World War II, and he was familiar with Honor Flights and said he could help.

"I get calls to do, maybe, 30 a year - 15 in the spring and 15 in the fall," said Beirne.

This event was different, he said, because of special guest Marine Corps General Paul Xavier Kelley, the 28th commandant of the Marine Corps.

Father John Cregan, retired pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Alexandria, and a retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel, was there to see his friend Kelley address the veterans.

Father Cregan said that the men and women who fought in World War II are true heroes, and that sense of duty and patriotism are hard to find these days.

"They are the 'Greatest Generation,'" he said.

Retired General Joseph Ward shook hands with of the veterans as they left the bus. His name tag showed his rank, and some of the old men called him, "General."

"I'm just Joe," he told them.

There were many Knights of Columbus dignitaries in the receiving line, including State Deputy Stephen P. Raschke and Past State Deputies Stephen A. Burnley and Tom Harger.

After an opening prayer, the Joint Armed Forces Color Guard brought the U.S.flag and the flags from each branch of the military services to the front of the ballroom for the Pledge of Allegiance.

During the meal, Beirne introduced Grand Knight John M. White who introduced Kelley.

Kelley was the first recipient of the Francis P. Matthews and John E. Swift Educational Trust Scholarships established in 1944 to pay the college expenses of the children of Knights who died in the line of duty.

Kelley also headed the American Battle Monuments Commission, responsible for the building of the National World War II Memorial, something he called his "highest honor."

After Kelley's speech, each veteran was given a flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol. Three retired Air Force generals were there to hand out the flags: Maj. Gen. Ward, Gen. Gregory Martin and Gen. Paul Hester.

The evening ended with taps played by bugler Michael Foster of Bugles Across America.

Army veteran Bruce Gist, 92, was a combat engineer in Germany. He said the evening and the trip were "incredible."

He lived in the Washington area for a while, but coming back this time was different and special.

Mitchell Ramanos served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and was taken prisoner by the Germans. He was touched by all the attention he received on this trip.

Grand Knight White said the Knights' love of country runs deep, so this effort is embraced.

"How can we not provide for these veterans who are on pilgrimage to their memorials? It's the least we can do," he said.

A hard, steady rain greeted the veterans as they returned to their buses for the trip back to their hotel. They were old soldiers, members of the Greatest Generation, treated like the heroes they are.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015