World War II veteran Charles F. Sainer brought to the airport by girlfriend Lynda Phillips for the recent Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C. (Courtesy Photo)

Peninsula vets go on free trip to D.C. on Honor Flight Bay Area

When Alvaro G. Alvarado enlisted in the military at the age of 18, he could not have guessed he would soon be part of the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day.

The San Jose resident, who celebrates his 92nd birthday Oct. 4, said he was too naïve to be scared.

“When you’re young, you know, you don’t think nothing about it,” Alvarado said.

Alvarado was among two dozen local World War II veterans who recently enjoyed a free trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the National World War II Memorial.

The trip was organized by Honor Flight Bay Area, the newest hub of a national network that flies World War II, Korea and Vietnam vets to the nation’s capital to view the
memorials.

Launched just over a decade ago, Honor Flight programs around the country aim to provide such
trips to as many vets as possible. Space is limited and waiting lists are long, so priority is given to World War II
vets and those with terminal illnesses.

Because most passengers are in their 80s or 90s and some are disabled, the servicemen and servicewomen are accompanied by volunteer
guardians.

In some cases, the guardians are themselves younger vets seeking to aid those who preceded them in service.

One younger vet is Don Newton, a Vietnam-era Marine who said he co-founded Honor Flight Bay Area last year because the existing Honor Flight Northern California organization, based in Shasta County, couldn’t meet the demand for memorial trips that exists specifically in the Bay Area.

When Alvarado and his fellow vets assembled at SFO for the most recent Honor Flight, the group’s Medical Director Connie Johnson was there to watch over them.

Johnson said her organization is committed to including vets who are in hospice, but she carefully screens all applicants to make sure they’re able to travel safely.

A vet with advanced dementia could have difficulties on such a trip, and might not get much out of it, Johnson explained.

But when Johnson was asked if the mental health issues she occasionally encounters in applicants might sometimes include substance abuse, her response revealed the reverence she feels for these aging warriors. “Oh no,” Johnson said. “These are World War II veterans!”

Honor Flights receive no federal funding and rely completely on donations from individuals and organizations.

San Bruno’s American Legion Post 409 sponsored Burlingame resident Angel Martinez Garcia’s voyage.

Drafted in 1942, Martinez Garcia, now 94, found himself on Omaha Beach during the Normandy landings.

“I got in there real quick and they made me a staff sergeant and I remained a staff sergeant for a while,” said Martinez Garcia, whose Army career included enduring the Mortain counter-offensive, a failed attempt by multiple SS and Wehrmacht Panzer divisions to reverse Allied gains during the Battle of Normandy.

Most Honor Flight passengers happily accepted the wheelchairs they were offered, but not Charles F. Sainer, who’s in his early 90s, and was brought to the airport by girlfriend Lynda Phillips.

A Navy corpsman, Sainer served during the D-Day invasion aboard an LST (Landing Ship, Tank) that delivered 20 amphibious tanks before becoming a hospital ship.

Sainer told a chilling story about the death of the first wounded man brought aboard, but downplayed his own exposure to the horrors of war, modestly describing himself as a “gofer” for the ship’s medical team.

As for Phillips, explaining her attraction to the much older Sainer is easy.

“You should see him dance,” Phillips said.

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