Who wouldn’t want to be aboard a yacht, floating in the waters of Hawaii, escaping the December weather of Missouri? Sounds like a perfect vacation, but for the crew members of Gene Durham’s future ship, it was a nightmare.
The yacht, Elvida arrived in Hawaii on December 5, 1941. The newly commissioned YP-109 submarine chaser and yard patrol boat arrived at Pearl Harbor from California.
Two days later, Japan launched the sneak attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. It was that attack that led Durham to enlist in the war efforts and ironically he ended up assigned to the Elvida. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared December 7, 1941 as “a date which will live in infamy”.
For Durham, April 16, 2015 will hold a similar place in his history. Along with 32 fellow veterans, Durham took part in the 29th mission of the Great River Honor Flight program, making a whirlwind 24-hour trip to Washington D.C. to visit the war memorials.
“I had never been to Washington,” said Durham, who admitted he had only been to Hannibal, the staging center for the northeast Missouri veterans taking the flight, on a couple of occasions prior to his deployment in 1941, when his travels greatly expanded.
He didn’t get to see much of the river front city on this trip, as he and his “guardian” his daughter Margie Robinson of Storm Lake, IA, arrived in Hannibal at 1 a.m. They were treated to breakfast courtesy of a local church as Gene and his travel guardian checked in along with other trip participants at Hannibal LaGrange University. They received an official briefing at 1:45 and boarded the bus for the St. Louis airport shortly after two in the morning.
By 5:45 a.m. they were aboard Southwest Airlines Flight 4129 for Baltimore. A short bus trip had them at the Korean War Memorial by 10:30 a.m. on April 16th. During this stop the group also toured the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial.
The tour arrived at the WWII memorial at noon before receiving a short tour of Washington D.C. before ending up at the Iwo Jima Memorial. Then it was on to Arlington Cemetery before concluding with a stop at the Air Force Memorial.
Durham said the cemetery was humbling, with more than 20 acres devoted to fallen servicemen and women.
He admitted that the trip was a bit overwhelming, especially considering he was battling a bit of illness.
But even being a bit under the weather and having just completed a hectic 24 hours of travel, there was no jet lag for Durham when he arrived back at the St. Louis airport.
“There were cadets lined up and down the walkways at the airport, giving us the royal treatment when we got home,” he said.
That was just the beginning.
Gene was particularly proud of the red, white and blue wall hanging that was gifted to each of the veterans. The handcrafted keepsake features the American flag, the Liberty Bell, an eagle and various other patriotic symbols.
The bus received a motorcade escort from area bikers, and the highway overpasses along Highway 61 were lined with fire engines and police cars with flashing lights and hundreds of volunteers who came out in the early morning hours to salute the veterans’ return.
“Everywhere we went, from start to finish, there were people clapping, groups waving flags, stopping to shake the veteran’s hands and say thank you,” said Margie. “It was truly amazing.”