On the occasion of his wife’s burial, former US Congressman and author Paul Findley recalls with great love and affection the woman to whom he was married and writes about the ‘honour flight’ they were supposed to take together
As far as the eye could see, neat rows of white marble markers commemorated the lives of deceased war veterans. The National Cemetery at Arlington, Virginia, is the last resting place for more than 300,000 war veterans, with additional burials occurring all day and every day.
Long ago, Lucille, once my fellow Navy officer and later my loyal and loving wife for 65 years, fervently stated her desire to be buried at Arlington. A week ago, her wish became a reality.
With a sailor on horseback leading the way, a team of six other horses pulled the caisson slowly down a long hill in the early morning of May 21. It bore a flag-draped casket and a box that contained Lucille’s ashes. Ahead of the caisson, a rifle company of sailors marched, accompanied by a band whose drums were muffled to provide a quiet, solemn cadence.
Arriving at the bottom of the hill, the band softly played ‘America the Beautiful’ and the ‘Navy Hymn’. A sevensailor squad fired three rounds, each synchronised as one.
At the burial site, the flag was folded into a tight triangle as if by clockwork. After the closing words and the prayer were said by the priest, the sailors lowered a box containing Lucille’s remains deep into a grave. Then above it they placed an empty container for my ashes for when they arrive someday at Arlington.
Lucille served in World War II as a Navy nurse specially trained for air evacuation of the wounded troops from the battlefields. Based in Guam, she worked with a small, proud group called the Navy Flight Nurses. They traveled to and from the battlefields, first at Iwo Jima, then at Okinawa.
Shortly after her death on August 21, a memorial service was held at Our Saviour’s Church in Jacksonville. Her interment in Arlington could not be scheduled until the chill of late October, so it was delayed until the springtime. Her long wait to be buried measured nearly a full year of sadness and remembrance for me.
The year included another stirring event, my participation in an Honour Flight for WWII veterans. Each flight includes an early morning departure from the local airport in Jacksonville to Washington DC, for a day-long tour of the war memorials there, returning home the same evening.
Lucille and I were scheduled to take an Honour Flight last October, three months after her death. After I cancelled both reservations, James Carleton, a Jacksonville neighbour and an official of the Honour Flights persuaded me to reschedule mine for April 17.
It was one of the most uplifting experiences of my life. I joined 81 other war veterans — mostly from the Second World War — aboard an Honour Flight at Springfield airport. Each was assisted by a guardian.
Mine was Carleton who heads the Morgan- Cass Farm Bureau. From the moment I met him at 3:30am until he drove me home late that night, he provided respectful, patient, unlimited commitment to my comfort. He was always helpful, always nearby. Several veterans on the flight could hardly move a limb, much less stand, but each was helped off the planes and buses at every stop.
During the homeward flight, each veteran received a ‘mail call’ packet. In advance of the flight, the organisers had arranged for relatives, friends, and school children to send cards or notes to fill each packet. Mine had 21 letters and cards.
After landing at Springfield airport, the veterans — most of us in wheelchairs — formed a parade into the area where ticket counters are located. It was 9:45pm but to my amazement more than 200 people, young and old, military and civilian, were gathered there, shouting and clapping a warm welcome to us.
My guardian Carleton summed up the experience, “This is one of the most satisfying projects of my life. My wife Jan and I love it.” For me, it was a thrilling demonstration of pure love for a country by people of all ages, a sentiment later enriched by the majestic ceremony at Arlington. I have new confidence in America’s future.