Operation Greatest Gift, the Grand Masters Project of the California Masons, arranged for longtime Los Altos resident retired Navy Lt. Fred Wellmerling, 90, to join a group of veterans on a trip to Washington, D.C.
Although the World War II Memorial in Washington was completed in 2004, many surviving veterans have been unable to view it due to health and/or financial problems. Operation Greatest Gift organizes fully supported and funded three-day trips to the nation’s capital so that veterans may be commended for their service and honor their fallen friends.
Wellmerling, one of many participants in the program, traveled to Washington with a group of 57 fellow veterans, none of whom he had previously met. The vets received recognition for their service and were given a tour of the memorial.
The trip proved a memorable experience for Wellmerling, who grew emotional when describing his sojourn.
When it came time to board the plane, an airline employee at the gate announced that the group of distinguished veterans would be given priority boarding. Upon hearing the announcement, everyone in the terminal stood and applauded the veterans, a special and proud moment for them, Wellmerling said.
Wellmerling, a self-described Spencer, Iowa, farm boy, enlisted in the Navy in 1941, despite never having seen an ocean.
A senior in college at the time, he was part of a special Navy program, V-7, which allowed college seniors to finish school before being activated. After graduation, he traveled to New York for 90 days of training, then traveled by train to Oakland for his commission. He was assigned to the USS Nassau, an Essex Class Carrier in the Pacific, as a communications officer, and learned the rest on the job.
During his four years of duty on the USS Nassau, the ship logged 227,948 nautical miles and crossed the equator 26 times. His carrier group was part of many battles throughout the Pacific Theater.
Wellmerling met his wife, Ruth, near the end of his service. After his discharge, they settled in Los Altos, where he still resides. Until his retirement from an advertising agency, he rode the train to San Francisco every day.
Wellmerling remains active in a barbershop quartet, a hobby he has enjoyed for 52 years, and is a member of the Bohemian Club of San Francisco.