Northern Nevada’s newest rock star is a 95-year-old Army veteran who served in the South Pacific during the latter years of World War II.
Mary Burks was among 36 veterans who recently returned to Reno as part of the second Honor Flight Nevada trip to the nation’s capital. For three days veterans representing their service during World War II, Korea and Vietnam visited the memorials and monuments built to honor the men and women who risked their lives fighting in one of the nation’s wars overseas.
Brian Kulpin, vice president of Marketing and Public Affairs for the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority, enjoys serving as master of ceremonies during the homecomings when veterans return home to enthusiastic crowds clapping their approval or holding up signs and U.S. flags. He singled out Burks as an important nugget who flew to Washington, D.C.
Kulpin said Burks, whose son Bill is adjutant general of the Nevada National Guard, served during World War II as did her husband.
“Everyone on this flight is a winner,” he said.
After the reception, Bill pushed his mother, an Army nurse during the war, in her wheelchair to a special area where she received a patriotic hand-sewn quilt as a small token of appreciation for her service and being part of the Honor Flight Nevada family.
Overwhelmed with the attention, Mary Burks was at a loss for words.
“I enjoyed the people,” Mary said, also beaming when asked about placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
“it was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Bill, who accompanied his mother on the trip as her guardian. “Watching my mom lay the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was unbelievable, something I couldn’t believe was happening. It was so surreal.”
Seeing the memorial brought tears to her eyes for this Army nurse who arrived on the island of Tinian in 1944 until she was reassigned to Japan after September 1945 as part of the occupation force. Tinian, 1,500 miles away from Japan, became a major staging island for the B-29 Superfortress bombers Enola Gay and Boxcar, each carrying an atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively.
“She knew who Tibbets was,” Bill Burks said of the Enola Gay pilot, adding the B-29s. a four-engine propeller-driven heavy bomber, were new to the war in 1944.
As with all personnel on the island, the days and hours were consumed with the mission and their duties.
“She was a surgical nurse, nothing on the front line. The patients were brought to them,” Bill Burks added.
After the two B-29s dropped their atomic bombs in August 1945, the Japanese surrendered and officially signed the documents ending the war on Sept. 2. From there, Burks said his mother became part of the occupation under General Douglas MacArthur’s command.
Bill Burks was surprised with the attention his mother was receiving.
“What stood out for me were the groups of school who would come up to her,” he recalled. “It didn’t make any difference which memorial or monument we were at.”
During the whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C., Mary met students at the Navy Memorial who wanted to be photographed with their newest heroine. She visited the World War II memorial and saw the columns marked with the names of each state. She encountered woman runners on a Marine ruck run who stopped. “They all wanted to get a picture with her,” Bill said.
Later, when visiting the U.S. Marine Corps Iwo Jima memorial, two female Marines wanted to be photographed with the World War II veteran, and Bill had the opportunity to snap a few photos of his mother next to the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, which depicted three nurses with a wounded soldier.
Bill Burks didn’t know if his mother would have the opportunity to participate in an honor flight to Washington, D.C. Her husband and Bill’s father died in March, and he felt the timing was right for her to send in her application to go on the flight.
The trip also sparked humbleness and appreciation for the other veterans who spent three days on the trip. Navy veteran Leon Werner of Gardnerville spent most of his enlistment from 1958-1961 aboard the USS Salisbury Sound, a Currituck-class seaplane tender that received four campaign stars for service in Vietnam. He also remembers sailing up the Mekong in 1959 to Saigon,” South Vietnam’s capital and largest city.
The Vietnam Memorial Wall, though, with its thousands of names stood out for Werner and other veterans from the era.
“Seeing the memorial was something I hadn’t seen before. The wall is something,” he said.
Werner had envisioned visiting the actual memorial since seeing the Vietnam Moving Wall in June at Minden’s Eastside Memorial Park. He participated in the opening ceremony as part of the color guard. Although he’s a Vietnam veteran, he gives thanks to those before him.
“World War II, Korea vets … if it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do what we did,” he said.
Paul Ortiz of Fallon said he had applied to be on an Honor Flight Nevada in 2015, and he’s grateful to have been selected for the recent trip. The Navy veteran, who served from 1963-1967, spent his time on two support ships going up and down the Vietnamese coast as shipmates rearmed aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers.
The honor flight gave him his first opportunity to visit the memorials, and like many veterans from his era, he was in awe of the Vietnam Wall.
“Standing by the wall brought back memories,” said Ortiz, who moved to Fallon 14 years ago from the San Francisco area after retiring. “That was the most emotional part for me.”
As he strolled along the walkway looking at the names, Ortiz said other vets had tears in their eyes. At their dinner later that evening, the veterans shared their stories and emotions during a bonding time. Ortiz said he liked the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, especially when the four World War II veterans placed a wreath, and the United States Marine Corps Iwo Jima War Memorial. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial stopped Ortiz.
“I was impressed and read what was on the plaque,” he said.
Ortiz said he was most impressed with the number of school-aged children who approached the veterans, lining up to meet them.
Jacks Valley resident Chuck Sanicola spent 18 years in the U.S. Air Force and six in the Navy. With his wife, Nancy, by his side, Sanicola choked up talking about the Vietnam Wall and the names of fallen comrades.
“It was hard to see half of my generation there,” said Sanicola, who deployed during the Persian Gulf War as a reservist.
He had nothing but praise for the Honor Flight Nevada volunteers.
“They were so good, always at your elbow,” he added.
Lanny Lemburgh, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Minden, said he and his best friend deployed to Vietnam together. His friend, though, was killed.
“It was a sad ordeal for me,” Lembergh said of his visit to the wall.
During the trip to Washington, D.C., though, the small touches upon arrival at airport and in the capital will also leave an indelible impression. He said at several stops, many eighth-grade students would step off their buses and then gather around the Nevada veterans. The welcome at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport surprised him as well.
“That was fantastic. The welcome was unbelievable. So many people welcomed us,” said Lembergh, who served with the 27th Transportation Battalion in Central Vietnam.
His wife, Jan, met her smiling husband at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport.
“I knew this would mean so much for him,” she said. “This was the homecoming he didn’t get in 1969.”
Army veteran Frank Peralta of Gardnerville said he wanted to be part of the honor flight. Peralta said he loved the trip and enjoyed going to the Vietnam Wall and the Korean War Vets Memorial. The welcome at the BWI Airport and back in Reno also stand out for Peralta because he said many Vietnam vets, including him, were either ignored or ridiculed.
Peralta said he remembers “no parade, no barbecues no homecomings, no handshakes” when he returned from Vietnam. To him, Honor Flight Nevada brought a certain degree of closure.
“I had to go on this trip,” he said. “I learned a lot.”