During the final months of the War in the Pacific, the U.S. military made a concerted effort to capture one enemy-held island at a time, each island a stepping stone for American ground forces and air assets to attack the Japanese mainland.
As a young warrior in the 4th Marine Division, Bayne Stevens of Gardnerville, now 96, fought in three of the bloodiest battles of World War II in late 1944 and 1945 — Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima – each battle a test of fortitude and heroism for the ground troops from both the Marines and U.S. Army and air cover from Navy and Army aircraft.
One of the islands, though, became invaluable during the final days of World War II when the U.S. captured Tinian and then began expanding the airfields. North Field became the departure point of the 509th Composite Group with its B-29 bombers Enola Gay and Bockscar that trained at the Wendover Army Air Base in 1944 and 1945. The two B-29s carried the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus causing the Japanese to surrender days later.
One of the bloodiest battles occurred on Iwo Jima from Feb. 19-March 26, 1945, when soldiers and Marines captured the island in what many historians call one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific.
The island hopping and fierce fighting have stayed with Stevens for more than 70 years, but an Honor Flight Nevada journey to Washington, D.C., last weekend rekindled deep memories after he saw a photograph at the Navy Museum, one of the stops for a group of 28 Northern Nevada veterans who visited the nation’s monuments and memorials. Their four days in Washington serve as a lead-in into the Independence Day celebrations this week.
Behind Stevens on a wall hung a photograph of the Casablanca-class escort carrier Attu with Marines spelling out 4 Mar Div, P Stevens’ unit. That image from 1945 brought tears to the Gardnerville resident.
“I was on that,” Stevens said before leaving the Reno-Tahoe International Airport after a homecoming welcomed back veterans from their trip. “The war had just ended, and I was back on my way to the states. It was so neat. It was an aircraft carrier and a beautiful picture of us sailing toward the port of San Diego.”
The Attu arrived in San Diego on Oct. 12, 1945, six weeks after the formal signing to end World War II in the Pacific theater, with 950 veterans including Stevens lined up on the flight deck.
Stevens and other veterans brought their weekend memories back home on Sunday. After the 28 veterans deplaned and walked to the lobby where hundreds of cheering friends and family members waved miniature U.S. flags, Dean Schultz, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the airport authority, said this was the 23rd Honor Flight returning to the Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Since its inception in 2012, Honor Flight has taken 750 veterans to the nation’s capital. Schultz asked the assembled guests, veterans and Patriot Guard riders, who serve as an honor guard, to reflect about the upcoming week.
“The Fourth of July is a date, but it’s Independence Day. It’s about freedom,” he said, as bagpiper Sr. Airman Maria Connell of the Nevada National Air Guard led the procession from their gate to the main floor, and two members of the Civil Air Patrol held the U.S. flag in front of the veterans and their guardians.
Likewise, Marily Mora, the airport authority’s president and CEO, honored the veterans and those before them.
“We’re celebrating the men and women who fought for our freedom,” she said.
Marine veteran Ron Gutzman of Carson City, the state’s March 2016 Veteran of the Month, had one word describing the entire trip: “Outstanding.”
“I’ve used that word a hundred times,” the Korean War veteran said with a wide grin. “The Marines (on the trip) were really lucky. We got to see a lot of Marine events. We had an extra day. We saw the Marine Corps Memorial, the Marine Corps Museum, the Marine Corps barracks.”
Normally, Honor Flight Nevada trips are three days, but this one added a day for the Marine Corps activities.
Jon Yuspa, executive director of Honor Flight Nevada, said the extended time allowed the veterans an opportunity to see the Marine Corps Museum and the Navy memorial and museum at the Washington Navy Yard.
“The Marine Corps Museum is a place every service member, every branch should see,” he added.
Don Bird of Carson City also served in the Korean War, with the U.S. Air Force.
“There were so many things we saw such as the Marine museum and barracks,” he said. “They actually honored us at the barracks. Amazing. We didn’t expect that at all.”
Bird, though, said he enjoyed meeting former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, a World War II veteran who meets Honor Flight travelers depending on his health and weather.
“He’s a war hero, too,” Bird pointed out.
Michal Elterman of Gardnerville served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. Before the flight on Thursday, he said his emotions were “up and down” when meeting fellow travelers.
One of the highlights for Elterman was watching the ceremonial changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
Army veteran Sal Busicano said the homecoming at the airport and the Honor Flight were amazing. He served near Seoul after the Korean War with a signal battalion.
“Everything was terrific … but I started to get real emotional,” he said.