Seventy World War II veterans from Indiana will fly to Washington on Saturday to visit the memorial that pays tribute to their service to the nation 70 years ago.
For two of them from Bartholomew County, it will be the trip of a lifetime.
“I never dreamed that I would get to go to the capital of the United States,” said Chester Caffee, 88, of Newbern. “I’ve never had nothing this good happen to me, and I want it to happen before I go.”
Time ran out for millions of his fellow servicemen. In just the past four years, the number of surviving World War II veterans dropped from about 5.7 million to about 1 million today, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates.
Peter Ster, 89, of Columbus, will join Caffee on Saturday’s Honor Flight. Memories of fallen comrades have been on his mind since the war.
Ster, an officer, was a motor machinist and Navy engineer for Landing Craft Infantry ships in both Europe and Asia.
The retired Cummins mechanical engineer said he hasn’t had a chance to experience anything like this since his return from the war in the spring of 1945 — just in time to be in a Memorial Day parade.
That celebration, which took place a month after Nazi Germany surrendered, provided a homecoming that Ster recalls with great fondness.
“There was an appreciation expressed for what we accomplished that made me proud to be part of the war effort,” Ster said. “For me, this weekend will do the same thing.”
He can’t help but dwell, however, on the hundreds of thousands who never made it home.
“There were a lot of people who sacrificed their lives to do what was accomplished in that war,” Ster said. “They never had the opportunity to participate in such joyous celebrations.”
Reunion activities begin today, when the local veterans travel to Indianapolis to meet with the 68 others from throughout Indiana who will make the Indy Honor Flight trip.
Following an American Legion-sponsored reception, the veterans will spend the night at a hotel near Indianapolis International Airport before boarding their chartered plane early Saturday for the day trip to Washington, D.C.
After landing in the nation’s capital, they will be cheered by younger veterans as they get onto chartered buses, which will first take them to the National World War II Memorial. They also will tour memorials for service members who died during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.
Finally, they will watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery before boarding the plane that will bring them back home
For Caffee, a retired leather craftsman, worked as a tank mechanic in the southwest Pacific while an Army corporal from 1944 through 1946. He called the trip the fulfillment of a long-held wish.
“I’d just like to see the big cemetery where my buddies are laid to rest,” Caffee said. “There are men under my command buried (in Arlington National Cemetery) who put their lives on the line in order to protect me. That’s bothered me for a long time.”
Caffee is hoping for something much better than what he experienced when he returned from the war.
His 1946 homecoming was tragically marred when his father died in a sawmill accident just two weeks after his military discharge. That forced Caffee to immediately begin working multiple jobs to support not only his own wife and child but also his mother and four siblings.
Like many veterans of the same era, neither Caffee nor Ster sees himself as a hero. Both men prefer to reserve that accolade for the 405,000 Americans who fought in World War II and never came home.
The Indy Honor Flight program, a Mooresville-based nonprofit that is paying travel expenses for the veterans, also is organizing Operation Homecoming.
The public is encouraged to be at the Indianapolis International Airport at 8:30 p.m. Saturday to help welcome the veterans home. They will be greeted by members of several veteran organizations, as well as bagpipers, a patriot guard and American Legion riders.
Plans also include smooches from female admirers dressed in 1940s fashion, reminiscent of iconic Life Magazine cover photos from 1945, said Ster’s daughter, Carolyn Massingale.
Massingale feels retired NBC television news anchor Tom Brokaw’s description of the “greatest generation” is both fitting and well-deserved for those such as her father and Caffee.
After being raised in the Great Depression, they were among millions willing to lay down their lives to stop the terror of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Gen. Hideki Tojo’s imperialist Japan and the fascism of Italian leader Benito Mussolini, Massingale said.
“These men and women created a legacy of ethics, morals and loyalty that I’m grateful my father passed down to me,” Massingale said. “They’ve lived through some of our nation’s worst times and came out better people for it.”