When 43 World War II veterans board two planes out of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on May 31, they will be carrying with them memories of comrades lost, just as they once carried letters from home into battle.
Their Honor Flight trip, commemorating Memorial Day, will take the group to Washington, D.C., to see the National World War II Memorial.
"There will be a sense of pride, but it also will bring back a lot of memories, some about men who have passed on," said Alfred "Al" Zucker, a 94-year-old Sunrise resident. Drafted in 1944, he fought as an Army sergeant in the Battle of the Bulge, where 19,000 Americans lost their lives, more than in any other World War II conflict.
The trip is the second for the new South Florida hub of the national nonprofit Honor Flight, which has taken 118,000 World War II veterans on free one-day trips to the memorial and the National Mall since 2005. Operating out of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, the hub serves vets from Monroe to southern Palm Beach counties.
Like many of the traveling vets, Zucker has never seen the monument, which was dedicated during Memorial Day weekend 10 years ago, and he is braced for an emotional overload.
His Army engineering company was repairing landing craft in southern France in early January 1945, he said, when they suddenly were whisked to the French-Belgian border to assist infantry and armored divisions under heavy German fire.
What Zucker most remembers from the Battle of the Bulge is the brutal cold. "I wore three pairs of socks and still couldn't warm up," Zucker said.
The oldest person on the Memorial Day Honor Flight, 96-year-old Joe Rubenstein of Boca Raton, also was at the Bulge.
“It was a situation I will remember for the rest of my life. The cold wetness was unbearable,” said Rubenstein, who marched with Gen. George Patton’s Third Army up through the frozen Ardennes woods in Belgium and Luxembourg in the winter of 1944-45. “The ones who were there will always remember that war is hell.”
Rubenstein was reluctant to talk about his war experience on a recent afternoon, as he flipped through a large binder filled with notebook pages of handwritten memories, photos of smiling GIs, devastated towns bombed to ruins, and a young Rubenstein holding up a newspaper with the headline: “Japan Quits.”
“Ever seen a body frozen to death?” he suddenly asked. “It looks like cardboard. Germans and Americans both.”
Rubenstein did share a few of his World War II stories with Samantha Hockenberry, who will be his volunteer “guardian” on the trip.
“It’s one thing to hear about it from a historian, and another to hear it from someone who was there,” said Hockenberry, 24, an IT consultant from Highland Beach.
Honor Flight pairs each participant with a volunteer to help them walk or push their wheelchairs, keep them company and tend to their needs. Guardians may be relatives but often are volunteers who pay their own way and contribute toward veterans' fares.
Zucker's guardian is Brian Mast, 33, a retired Army staff sergeant and Purple Heart recipient who was injured in Afghanistan four years ago. Mast will walk alongside Zucker to the memorial with the aid of two high-tech prosthetic legs.
"I am honored to be escorting you on this trip," Mast told Zucker one recent afternoon. "I grew up wanting to be G.I. Joe."
Mast fought in a very different kind of war than Zucker. As part of a small explosive ordnance disposal unit, Mast would creep through the countryside in the dark, looking for buried explosive devices. About 2 a.m. on a September night four years ago, he was gently prodding the earth near a village thought to be housing Taliban fighters. Discovering nothing, he stood up and took several quiet steps back: "And I found what I was looking for," said Mast.
The explosion so badly mangled his body that he lost both legs above his knees and his left index finger.
Today, Mast scuba dives and rides bikes with his family, and works as an explosives expert with the Department of Homeland Security when he isn't earning an economics degree from Harvard University. He volunteered to be a guardian after meeting Ryan Paton, one of the South Florida hub's organizers, at a networking event.
"I wanted to have the opportunity to give back and have that fellowship with other veterans," Mast said. "I still think about the guys I served with every Memorial Day."
Washington, D.C., is expected to be packed with Honor Flight visitors at the end of May and early June, given the patriotic holiday and mild spring weather, said Carol Bradley Johnson, spokeswoman for the National Mall and Memorial Parks division of the National Park Service. There are at least two Honor Flights booked at the World War II Memorial, beginning Tuesday, every day this week.
"We have volunteers go out and greet them, and myself and our superintendent go out sometimes, too," Johnson said. "It's one of our favorite things to do."
Sometimes, she said, she will see veterans talking softly with their guardians, as they finally tell the stories they have kept packed away with their medals and photos for many years.
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Come welcome home the 43 World War II veterans returning from their Memorial Day Honor Flight on May 31. Homecoming participants should be in Terminal 3 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport about 7:15 p.m., with the flight arriving about 8 p.m. Wear red, white and blue, and bring American flags or signs.
Honor Flight South Florida also is accepting applications from World War II veterans and volunteers for the next flight in October. Info: honorflightsouthflorida.org, 855-359-1838855-359-1838.