Honor Flight San Diego returns to cheering crowd

Chula Vistan Pete Sanzo has been a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, but never attended a meeting at his local post.

That’s about to change.

At age 100, he just made a new friend.

Veterans and guardians on the Honor Flight San Diego flight give a thumbs up. Photo by Chris Stone

Sanzo and his daughter, Judi, returned Sunday from a three-day trip to Washington, D.C. courtesy of Honor Flight San Diego and reminisced about it while waiting at Baltimore/Washington International Airport.

Over the weekend, Sanzo was sharing a meal at a Baltimore hotel when he discovered that a veteran at his table also lived in the South Bay.

A Sunday brunch and meetings at the VFW already have been discussed, says Judi Sanzo.

Eighty-five veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War flew to Baltimore early Friday and toured memorials all day Saturday. Their American Airlines charter touched down a little before 3 p.m. Sunday.

Hundreds of red-, white- and blue-clad people cheered, waved flags, held signs and shook hands with the 80- to 101-year-old military men (and one woman) upon their arrival home at San Diego International Airport.

About 40 uniformed military lined a stairway next to the down escalator overlooking the Spirit of St. Louis replica in Terminal 2. They saluted each veteran arrival. Other officers, from all branches, did the same for those taking the elevator.

Saturday started with a 6 a.m. breakfast, and after a whirlwind tour of Arlington National Cemetery, U.S. Air Fore Memorial, U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, World War II Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the U.S. Navy Yard Museum, they returned to the hotel at about 5:30 and had a dinner program about 9 p.m.

For Sanzo, the World War II Memorial touched him the most. He enjoyed looking at the columns with state names and someone gave him a “I Still Like Ike” button, his daughter said.

The memorial, with an actor portraying Gen. George Patton, brought back memories of the war. Sanzo dismissed the real Patton, calling him a man with no compassion.

Most veterans visited the memorials on their own power, while others got wheelchair assistance. All veterans were accompanied by a guardian, either a family member or a volunteer. Four buses took them from site to site.

Meeting new friends was only one benefit of the day along with swapping military stories, and for many, seeing the memorials that were built to honor them.

“My father had never come to D.C. to see some of these memorials,” Judi Sanzo said. “And it was important for him to see that the world recognizes his contribution. Every time somebody said thank you for your service, he would turn around and say thank-you back.”

Sanzo, who served in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945, was a tank driver. After 72 years of marriage, he misses his wife who has passed. But he stays active playing nine holes of golf three times a week.

Mike Burch, 55, was a guardian for his father, Dick, on the journey. He also appreciated the time they spent over the weekend.

“It’s just been an unbelievable experience,” Mike Burch said. “I have had such an honor.”

Mike Burch wasn’t in the military but enjoyed being surrounded by “these guys and the commitment that they made and knowing his (father’s) story of enlisting right out of college and leaving while he was in college to go serve.”

Mike said that for two years COVID-19 halted their plans to join the Honor Flight trip.

“When we got the call (from Honor Flight San Diego), boy, the whole entire family was so excited,” he said. “And I was fortunate enough to be able to take him. And so I’ve been sending back every single stop probably a dozen photos with the whole family texting with about 15 people. They’re all kind of getting to live the experience through us.”

While at the Korean War Memorial, a couple of South Korean girls approached Dick Burch as he sat in the shade in a wheelchair. They asked to shake his hand.

“He probably had 15 people shake his hand and thank him for his service,” said Mike, who lives in Carlsbad. “It was pretty special.”

He served in the 20th Infantry Division.

Tustin resident Dick Burch, 87, added: “It brought tears to my eyes. It meant a lot.”

The Korean War memorial means everything to him and made him think of his fate.

“I got home alive,” he said. “That was nice. Got back in one piece. I lost friends along the way but, by and large, I have good memories.”

All the “wonderful” people and family and the museums made the day very special, he said.

Judi Sanzo said she enjoyed sharing the experience with her father, and the trip has provided a “lifetime of memories to carry me on after my dad is moved on.”

Jack Gauthier has a reflection of the American flag in his glasses at a ceremony. Photo by Chris Stone

Others on the three-day journey included a Vietnam veteran and a female Korean War corpsman.

“The trip was absolutely mind blowing,” said Jack Gauthier, 75, the youngest on the trip. “I was humbled and blessed to be recognized.”

Gauthier was one of two veterans honored with a flag ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Saturday. Three retired warriors were taken on the flight now because they are terminally ill.

The Alpine resident called the ceremony an “honor that I will never forget. It was a fantastic feeling. I want to share this feeling an accolades to all that have served.”

The veteran joined the Naval Reserves the day after his 17th birthday and was called to active duty in 1966. He was stationed on the USS Canberra for two tours, Operation Sea Dragon, Huey and the Tet offensives.

Gauthier and a fellow veteran on the trip, Sammy Thomas, are called Blue Water Navy sailors, who didn’t step onto Vietnam soil but were exposed to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange while on the ship off the coast.

While first denied benefits, the Blue Water Navy military gained disability benefits following a 2019 federal court ruling.

Gauthier has served as commander of VFW Post 9578 Alpine for four years.

Asked what he is looking forward to in his life, he said, “more life, making more memories, doing more traveling. I just put another battery in and be like the Energizer Bunny and keep trying to go.” 

Sitting across the aisle from him on the flight was Annine Jack, who along with four siblings, served in the military – two in the Air Force and three in the U.S. Navy.

Navy veteran Annine Jack sees the WAVE display at the museum at the Navy Yards. Photo by Chris Stone

Jack followed a friend into boot camp in Bainbridge, Maryland, and then attended seven months of hospital corps school.

She served as a WAVE in the Military Sea Transport Service, out of Brooklyn, New York.

“We used to carry the troops and dependents back and forth to Europe and to the Mediterranean,” she said. “We were leaders. We fought hard.”

She pointed out that the 1950s lacked the medical opportunities of today. Their mainstays were bandages, painkiller Demerol and Penicillin.

With her son, Kurt, at her side, touring the Navy Yards on Saturday, she said of her service: “It was fun. I had good friends,” but added: “I’ve outlasted them all.” 

Fifth in a series.

Updated at 2:40 p.m. May 3, 2022