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Indy Honor Flight takes World War II vets to D.C.

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By Lorrain Watters
World War II veterans, including Charles Montgomery get off the bus Saturday and walk into the World War II Memorial, where they were greeted by visitors and re-enactors dressed in war uniforms. - SHFWIRE PHOTO BY LORAIN WATTERS
  • SHFWire photo by Lorain Watters
  • World War II veterans, including Charles Montgomery get off the bus Saturday and walk into the World War II Memorial, where they were greeted by visitors and re-enactors dressed in war uniforms.

Water flows over fountain heads, sprinkling droplets onto the cement floor and polished black shoes. His wrinkled hands are folded in his pockets as he is caught in a memory. He stands still watching the water move across the World War II Memorial. The only movement is the glistening of a small pin on his hat with the words “Honored Veteran.”

Frank Nelson, 91, served as an Army technician fifth grade during World War II. Standing tall in his beige shirt with red letters, “Veteran,” stamped across his chest, he remembered the invasion of Leyte in the Philippines.

“A friend of mine I was supposed to enlist in the Marines with was killed on site over there,” said Nelson of Evansville, Ind. “But I feel happy to be here on the tour. I feel great having my grandson here with me today.”

After the war, Nelson worked at the post office in Evansville, Ind., where he lives. He switched jobs to work at a service station, and later worked for 30 years at Whirlpool Corp.

Nelson’s grandson, Brett Nelson, 34, met him at at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Friday. Brett lives in Bethesda, Md., and served in Iraq in 2003 as a Marine Corps sergeant. He joined the Honor Flight to be his grandfather’s guardian. Guardians provided help for those who had a hard time getting around or just helped out.

Brett’s wife and two sons were also at the memorial, along with his brother, who lives in Richmond, Va., and his three daughters.

“I have a lot of support with me today,” Nelson said.

The Indy Honor Flight partnered with the Evansville Honor Flight Committee in Indiana, and hosted an Honor Flight Saturday to transport and guide World War II veterans around the D.C. memorials.

Seventy veterans made the trip, along with 70 guardians, who were relatives or volunteers.

John Digirolamo, 89, never finished high school. He dropped out so he could join the Army. By the time he was 18, he was sent off to the Pacific to build fighter planes as a private first class.

“I had three other brothers, and we were all enlisted and fighting in different places at the same time,” he said. “I remember receiving a letter from my mother, and she indicated his military address. I looked at it and it was the same number as mine.”

Digirolamo was given permission from his unit to break rank and check each of the units on the island of New Guinea to search for his brother.

“There were no signs that told you who was where, you just had to go by luck. So finally I got to a unit, talked to a few guys there, and asked for B. Digirolamo. They said he was there. I said, ‘Point out where his tent is,’ so they did,” he said. “I ran to the tent and when I got there, I see him and he said, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’”

Digirolamo and his brother, Bob, wrote back to their mother that they had found each other and were safe. Bob survived the war and lives in Philadelphia.

“Being here today is great, and I can remember that moment here. I found my brother during the war, and I don’t think that is something you hear about often,” he said. “I was one of the lucky ones.”

After the war, he got an engineering degree and was a civilian artillery technician for the military for 51 years.

Ashley Gregg, chair of the Evansville Honor Flight Committee, began planning this tour six months ago.

“The veterans have been smiling all day, hugged, kissed, thanked and welcomed everywhere they go,” Gregg said.

Gregg said the highlight of her day was seeing the five female veterans, all nurses during World War II, pose for photos with two Afghanistan veterans who had prosthetic legs. They lifted up their pant legs to show them off and posed for pictures with the nurses.

“They were showing off their battle wounds to the nurses, and it was neat seeing them come together,” she said.

Emily Kathryn Wooldridge Sohne, 90, served as a cadet nurse in the Army. She went to the Kentucky Baptist Nursing School and was recruited by another nurse to help the wounded soldiers during the war. She was stationed at the Nichols Army General Hospital in Louisville, Ky.

“There were about 20 of us in the class, and we all wanted to go in to help the guys who were wounded. We weren’t too qualified, so they gave us extra classes,” Sohne said.

The private hospitals had been filled past capacity with wounded soldiers, so hospitals were built that resembled barracks.

“They had all of the equipment and did surgeries you’ve never heard of before. I remember seeing penicillin there for the first time,” she said.

Running from bed to bed, Sohne did not know the names of most of her patients. She focused on caring for them and moving on to the next soldier.

Touching her gold wedding ring, Sohne, now a widow, said, “I cared for this one man, who I only knew as Sohne. Eventually, we grew fond of each other, and after the war ended on both fronts in 1945, he ended up marrying me and became the father of my children.”

Reporter Lorain Watters can be reached at lorain.watters@scripps.com or 202-408-1494.

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