Honor flight brings Utah vets to WWII memorial
Washington • German soldiers overwhelmed a U.S. convoy at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge and, armed with only small-caliber weapons, more than 100 Americans gave themselves up as prisoners of war.
They were marched into a field. The Germans let loose with machine guns. Only a few dozen Americans survived the Malmedy massacre.
John Bassarear is one of them.
On Thursday, Bassarear, an 89-year-old St. George resident, sat at the center of the World War II Memorial in the nation's capital. A fountain raged at the center of a circle of granite pillars honoring each state and recognizing every battle.
He reflected on his Army career and fought emotions he carried for 70 years as he described what it meant to participate in Utah's first Honor Flight, which brought 32 veterans to see the memorial.
"This is a fabulous way to celebrate. This circle. All the states came together," he said. "This shows that we took care of the whole damn world."
Such flights, in which donors pay for veterans to take quick trips to Washington, D.C., have been around for years, but they received national attention during the recent government shutdown. World War II vets moved National Park Service barricades to see the memorial and they were soon joined by Republican members of Congress in a protest.
It outraged Mike Turner, a member of the City Council in Richfield, Utah. And it didn't sit well with his friend Frank Biagi either. Biagi, a 97-year-old World War II veteran who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, said he would love to make a trip to the National Mall to see the memorial.
Turner got in contact with Dan Curtis, a federal employee with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, who was recently relocated from Kansas to Richfield. Curtis had helped organize 19 Honor Flights in Kansas and was already trying to set one up in the Beehive State. Curtis and Turner teamed up to launch the nonprofit endeavor that brought the veterans and their family members across the country and fulfilled Biagi's dream.
"I'm proud of the fact that I'm here that I earned the right to be here," said Biagi, who was an aerial photographer for the Army Air Corps during the war. "Also, I thought there would be a lot of girls here and I was right."
Biagi is a character. He grew up in the Bronx but moved to rural Utah 30 years ago because he thought the people were nice. He likes telling people he's the only Democrat in Richfield.
When Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, stopped by to welcome the veterans and take pictures with them, Biagi said he didn't want a picture with Lee, he wanted Lee to take his picture. He handed the senator his camera and Lee obliged, asking his press secretary Emily Bennion to get in the picture and Biagi kissed her hand.
Joking aside, Biagi said he wanted to see the memorial since it first opened in 2004.
"It is a privilege to have something like this," he said, "and to see it and to know I was part of what they are celebrating here."
Holladay resident Gordon McGavin was a gunner for the Army Air Corps and flew in 19 bombing missions in Germany.
He jokingly said his proudest moment of the war was "surviving," and he later noted that not all his friends did. The Utah veterans planned a prayer vigil at sundown, where they were to read the names of their friends and family who didn't return from the battlefields.
"This is a final tribute to them," McGavin said, "and for what they contributed to preserving our values."
For Dee and Zane Hatch, the trip was a big family affair. The brothers, both World War II veterans, brought nine family members with them on the trip and, like other veterans, they greeted random strangers who wanted to thank them for their service.
Dee Hatch, 94 years old from Loa, said the memorial made him "feel the spirit of America," while younger brother Zane, 90, from Aurora, hoped those who visited would not see a memorial to a war, but a memorial to a hard-won peace.
"This war we fought was supposed to be the war to end all wars, but it hasn't," Zane Hatch said. "It seems to spring up again. Animosity between people. It doesn't seem like man can comprehend that a peaceful existence would be better."
Twitter: @mattcanham How to donate: Dan Curtis and Panoramaland RC&D hope to organize future honor flights for the 9,000 World War II veterans living in Utah. It costs about $700 per veteran. Donations are accepted at any Zions Bank and those interested in participating can visit panoramalandrcd.org.