After giving three years of their life to their country, their country is repaying the debt more than 60 years later.
World War II veterans John Gerard, 89, and Paul Harr, 97, are leaving Sept. 4 for Washington D.C., as part of Honor Flight.
Honor Flight Network is a nonprofit organization created to honor America’s veteran.
They fly veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at their memorials.
Top priority is given to the senior veterans – World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill.
“It’s nice that somebody’s doing this,” Gerard said. “I’m looking forward to meeting guys like Paul and letting the ladies know I’m available. I’ve seen some of the monuments. A lot of people died to get them.”
Gerard served in the U.S. Maritime Service from 1943-46 as fireman and water tender aboard the William B. Wilson.
“When I was 17 I wanted to join the Navy, but I had a ruptured ear drum and couldn’t,” the Gardnerville Ranchos resident said. “When I was told by the Navy I was ineligible, I cried because I thought my country didn’t want me.”
Instead, Gerard joined the Maritime Service and attended bootcamp in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y.
The USMS was established in 1938 under the provisions of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. The mission of the organization was to train people to become officers and crew members on United States merchant ships. Since the war, the service has since been largely dissolved or absorbed into other federal departments. Its commissioned officers continue to function as administrators and instructors at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and the several maritime academies.
“It was something that you did,” Gerard said of his service. “Nobody beat you over the head. You knew what happened in Pearl Harbor. It’s what you had to do, and we did it.”
Gerard served in Europe and the Mediteranean and Indian oceans.
“We took 7,500 tons of high explosives to Anzio beachhead in Italy,” he said. “On the way there we hit an underwater mine, but it didn’t go off. Thank God, or I wouldn’t be here.”
The battle at Anzio in 1944 was one of the longest protracted battles of the war with more than 25,000 battle casualties (killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner) on each side of the conflict.
Following the war, Gerard married and had children — three sons and a daughter. His wife, Barbara, died in 2008 of leukemia.
For Harr, traveling to Washington, D.C., will be a birthday present to himself.
“The day we leave for Washington, I’ll be 98 and one day,” he said. “If the president knows John and I are going to be there I’m sure he’ll come see us.”
Harr, served in the U.S. Navy from 1944-47 aboard the USS Baxter.
“I’m very proud of the fact I served,” Harr said. “I had a 70,000-mile cruise in the beautiful South Pacific.”
The Gardnerville resident joined the Navy when he was 28 years old, even though he worked in a defense plant and had a deferment.
“I didn’t want a deferment, so I signed up for the Navy,” he said. “I had a son and a daughter, and I knew that when they grew up they’d ask what I did during the war, so I felt that I should be in.”
Harr worked as a radarman in the Pacific.
“Radar was a wonderful thing. We could pick up anything that was out there,” he said. “We got to the point where we could tell what kind of ship was out there by the pips and how they would come in.”
Three weeks after Japanese forces surrendered in Tokyo, Harr visited the city.
“The whole downtown Tokyo was leveled,” he said, “but the government buildings and palaces didn’t have a hit on them.”
After the war, Harr opened doughnut shops in California and Las Vegas before getting his broker’s license from University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
He has three children — two sons and a daughter.
Gerard and Harr return Sept. 7.