McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

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February 28, 2013

Local hero recalls Honors Flight to nation’s capital

McALESTER — U.S. Army Air Corps veteran Ralph Perona, of McAlester, treasures his trip to Washington D.C. as part of the Oklahoma Honor Flights program, where he saw the nation’s World War II Memorial.

He saw other monuments as well, such as the famed statue of U.S. Marines raising the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima.

Perona saw the sites when he went on an Oklahoma Military Honor Flight late last September, a program to take military veterans to see the nation’s monuments. He made the trip with Clem Peppers, who served as his guide — someone who takes a trip with an older veterans to serve as a companion during the trip and to offer any needed assistance.

“It means a lot — I don’t know how to explain it,” Perona said of the trip.

It’s not only the honor flight itself that meant a lot to Perona. It’s also those who were there to welcome him and other veterans at Tulsa, where they gathered to catch their flight to Washington.

Perona had been especially touched by the messages of thanks from children.

“The thing that ‘got’ me was reading some of the letters the kids wrote,” Perona said Friday.

“Even now, I get the letters out and read them again.”

Letters  written by children in the Tulsa area were compiled and handed to the veterans, with each veteran getting a large brown envelope filled with the messages.

One letter, signed simply from Kyle, stated “Dear Veteran, I appreciate all the wonderful things you have done for our country. Without you, our country wouldn’t be what it is today.”

Another read “Dear Veteran, thank you for risking your life to protect our country. I hope you have a good time in Washington, D.C.”

It also included a postscript, of sorts.

“You are America’s hero. You are amazing.”

Another letter from a little girl read, “Dear Veteran, I thank you for saving me and my family. I pray for every one of you and may God’s wings protect you.”

The writer went on to include a personal touch about how she liked the outdoors and liked to go hunting with her dad.

“P.S. I like getting dirty,” she added, which tickled Perona as he read it on his flight back from Washington.

“I laughed all the way home,” he said.

One of the letters signed with a full name came from Hannah Brewer.

“Thank your for your service,” it read. “I am truly blessed that you served to keep our country safe and free.”

Brewer also included a definition of “hero” as “An ordinary person facing extraordinary circumstances and acting with courage, honor and self-sacrifice.”

Perona had been impressed by the entire send-off the group got in Tulsa, where he met Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. before the veterans caught their flight to Washington.

“It was fantastic in Tulsa,” he said.

After the flight arrived in Washington, every veteran who had a cane was told to get in a wheelchair, Perona said.

When Perona and some of the other World War II veterans said they didn’t need a wheelchair, they were told to use one anyway because they would be covering a lot of territory.

“It wasn’t that we couldn’t walk — we couldn’t walk fast enough,” Perona said.

While he got to see the World War II Memorial and several other sites, Perona said he didn’t get to see the Vietnam War Memorial and other things he would have liked to have seen.

One reason appeared to be because a plane carrying a group of veterans and their guides from Oklahoma City was supposed to connect with the Tulsa group in Washington. For some reason, the group from Oklahoma City arrived on their flight about two hours behind schedule, Perona said.

After a whirlwind tour of the memorials and other sites they were able to see, it was back to Oklahoma, he said.

Perona joined the Army in 1942 at the age of 17.

He served in England during World War II, in the U.S. Army Air Corps, before the nation created the Air Force. Perona then re-enlisted, deciding to go in a different direction by serving with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Germany after the war ended.

In the Army Air Corps, he had trained to be a gunner on an aircraft, but before he was assigned to a plane, he was “shanghaied” by an officer he didn’t know and ordered instead to serve on a maintenance crew for planes operating out of Warrington Air Base in England, Perona said. He said he loaded lots of bombs at the air base.

One of the most memorable sights Perona saw while serving at the base came when the Allied Forces began the Normandy Invasion on D-Day.

“The sky was black with planes. It was a beautiful sight,” Perona said.

After the war ended, Perona was among soldiers who were offered six months leave so they could go home for Christmas if they would re-enlist. He said he re-enlisted and came home to McAlester, but everybody he knew was away serving with the military, so he decided to report back for duty before his leave ended.

When his time is added together, he spent eight years in the service, Perona said.

In addition to the letters from the children, another letter Perona holds dear is the one he received from District 18 state Rep. Donnie Condit, D-McAlester, last August, informing him he’d been accepted to participate in an Honor Flight.

“You are part of a unique group of World War II veterans,” Condit wrote. “You have lived long enough to see the impact you made on the stage of world history. We honor your service.”

“The investment of your life in turning back the attempts of despots to rule during World War II made it possible for our way of life to flourish,” Condit said.

“The least we can do is to honor your sacrifice by saying thank you and pledging our best effort to defend the liberty you fought to save.”

Perona still wonders from time to time what would have happened if he’d became a gunner on a plane, the job he had originally volunteered to do.

“I didn’t get it, but it’s probably good I didn’t,” Perona said. “I’m here today, talking to you.”

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

For more on this story, see the print or electronic editions of the McAlester News-Capital. Click here for print edition home delivery or click here to see the Smart Edition for your computer, tablet, e-reader or smartphone.

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