Imagine staring at a seemingly endless cluster of gold stars jutting out from a granite wall, and knowing that somewhere within that metallic constellation is a star that represents people you’ve crossed paths with.
And keep in mind that the 4,048 stars — each symbolizing 100 soldiers — memorialize military personnel who were killed in action during World War II. The stars grace the Freedom Wall, part of the National WWII Memorial in Washington D.C.
This was the reality confronting Francis Resta, a Davis resident and veteran who saw comrades in his 102nd Army Infantry Division die by the hundred. When he looked at the wall, it was an understandably emotional experience.
“I was trying to pick a star out, one for my company’s fatalities,” he said. “One of the (Honor Flight) guardians saw me standing at the rail, crying. She came over and hugged me. That was nice — of course, it just made me cry more.”
Honor Flight is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to transporting veterans to the memorials of their respective wars at no cost. It was the Northern California branch that afforded Resta the remembrance of a lifetime.
He boarded a Virgin American Airlines flight in San Francisco on April 19 for the free two-day trip to the nation’s capital. Resta traveled alongside 30 other veterans and 20 of Honor Flight’s volunteer guardians.
While he didn’t — as he had hoped to — encounter any of his fellow 102nd Infantry Division “Ozarks,” he still found camaraderie among other WWII vets.
“Veterans of the same war automatically feel as though they belong,” he said. “It was like we were old friends. That’s just the way it is.”
However, he felt forlorn that there were only three combat veterans on the trip. The bond between men in the trenches is strong, he said, explaining: “We slept outside in the cold, and got frostbite. We were so overworked all the time that we hardly slept anyways. … It was heavy work. I think that’s part of why there’s so few of us left.”
But none of the sacrifices of servicemen have gone unappreciated, as evidenced by the Honor Flight group being greeted with applause upon arriving at the National WWII Memorial.
Resta’s impression of the memorial was one of awe, especially of the engraved descriptions of the many battles fought during America’s campaign from the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 to V-J Day on Aug. 15, 1945.
“It gave you a sense when you looked around and saw all of the battles that your little corner wasn’t so big,” he said. “I think in that sense it was therapeutic, to realize that a hell of a lot of guys were involved.”
The solemn reminder of the conflict was a moment shared by Resta’s East Coast-dwelling family. His son and three grandchildren were allowed on the bus that transported the veterans, and were welcomed by a cheery cast.
“Each one that came on the bus would get the question, ‘What company were you in?’ ” he said with a laugh. “Military guys are always joking.”
Resta hadn’t seen his son’s house in Virginia before, so he managed to slip away from the group after the tour was over. When he got in the car to make his escape, he added, “One of my grandsons said, ‘We’re kidnapping grandpa!’ ”
And now, back home in Davis, he’s expressing thanks to Honor Flight for opportunity. He’s also doing what he can locally to convince remaining WWII veterans — a population quickly on the decline — that it’s worth taking the journey.
“You know, for 60-some years after I was discharged I never talked about anything, went to any reunions or even thought of it,” he said. “I would never go near it. I believe that some veterans are still the same way.
“I wish for more veterans to come forward (for the Honor Flight). There’s no reason no to — it’s free. I took some money along thinking I would have some expenses, but there was nothing to pay for.”
But to ensure Honor Flights for the future takes continuous funding. Those interested in contributing to the Northern California branch can do so at honorflightnorcal.org.
“It’s really something special to see the memorial,” Resta said, “and I’m going to make sure to spread the word about it.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett