Los Altos resident Earl Pampeyan is scheduled to fly to Washington, D.C., next month to visit the memorial that commemorates his World War II service.
The 89-year-old Pampeyan will travel – all expenses paid – with 25 other Bay Area veterans on a trip hosted by the national nonprofit Honor Flight Network. Founded in 2005, Honor Flight Network flies America’s war heroes to the nation’s capital for tours of the monuments that commemorate their bravery.
When asked what he was looking forward to on his upcoming trip, Pampeyan joked, “Surviving.”
The Southern California native, drafted while a student at Pasadena Junior College, survived a two-year stint in the Army during the war. He had taken an auto mechanics class, worked at a gas station and loved hot rods, so he served overseas as a tank mechanic, first working in Wales and then the town of Stendal, Germany. He rose from private to technical sergeant in two years.
During his military service, Pampeyan’s company of approximately 40 soldiers suffered three casualties. Freak accidents and stray bullets don’t discriminate. Like many other surviving World War II veterans, Pampeyan feels lucky to have made it out alive.
“Sitting on the front line, seeing B-17 bombers flying overhead catching fire, the occasional parachute coming down – I remember being thankful I wasn’t up in the air,” he said.
After the war, Pampeyan returned home to help his uncle with his jewelry business and continue his education – earning degrees at Pomona College and Claremont-McKenna College. A short stint in gemstones sparked Pampeyan’s interest in geology and subsequent lengthy career with the U.S. Geological Survey, which brought him to Northern California and eventually to Los Altos in 1957. He retired in 1992.
According to his wife, Joan, Pampeyan never spoke much about the war.
“Things happened and we survived,” he said.
Pampeyan still keeps his uniform pressed in a suit bag, however, and has black-and-white photos of himself as a young man with badges, grinning broadly by the propeller of a plane. September’s trip may trigger a return of those memories.
The flight includes 26 veterans, 24 guardians (volunteers who pay their own way to chaperone the honorees) and three administrators from the foundation. Seventeen wheelchairs will help transport the veterans on the ground.
Pampeyan had been waiting to travel to the memorial for years before the Honor Flight Network opened a San Jose hub in April – the Honor Flight Bay Area Foundation. Two other California hubs, in Anderson and Bakersfield, had been fielding applications from veterans throughout the state but were unable to service all of the requests.
“Some of them had applied up to two years ago,” said foundation Director John Armenta. “And some of them had passed away when we went looking for them.”
Because most World War II veterans are in their 90s, the numbers diminish nearly every day. Honor Flight gives nonagenarians and veterans who are terminally ill or have never seen the memorial priority.
In addition to the World War II Memorial, the veterans will visit other landmarks like the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the Women in Military Service for America Memorial (one woman is scheduled for the trip) and Arlington National Cemetery, where four Honor Flight veterans will lay a wreath during the changing of the guard ceremony.
“From what I’ve heard about it, it’s something to look forward to,” Pampeyan said of the trip.
Back at their hotel in Arlington, Va., the veterans will have time for the discussions that will inevitably unfold throughout the trip.
Honor Flight volunteer Connie Johnson said many of the young people who served in the war weren’t home when the war ended – they missed the tickertape parades and “all of this ‘rah rah, you’re home’ kind of thing.”
“A lot of people don’t get … that this is the first time they’ve been recognized,” she said.
According to Johnson, the honorees appreciate the recognition. Members of past trips, she added, “were determined – they were going to see everything.”
Pampeyan won’t be the lone Los Altos resident on the trip, which aims to honor the survivors and those who never made it home. Veterans Irwin Martin, Charles Cook, Greg Hyver, Harold Hughes, John Klee and Gerry Blaufarb are also scheduled for the flight.
For more information on the Honor Flight Bay Area Foundation, visit honorflightbayarea.org.
Honor Flight Vet Earl Pampeyan - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier