Thunderbolt to Washington

Posted 10/18/22

Richard Esposito of Cranston said he couldn’t wait to get to Vietnam.

That’s not what one expected to hear from an Army veteran who saw 25 percent of his company, …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Thunderbolt to Washington


Richard Esposito of Cranston said he couldn’t wait to get to Vietnam.

That’s not what one expected to hear from an Army veteran who saw 25 percent of his company, about 25 men, killed during the Tet offensive in Saigon on Jan. 31, 1968. Esposito served two tours in Vietnam. The first came after November 1965 when 45,000 men were drafted.

Following training as a military police officer, Esposito boarded a troop carrier. It was slow and packed tight.

After 24 days, “I couldn’t wait to get to Vietnam,” Esposito said between bites of a muffin early Saturday morning at Green Airport waiting to board a Southwest flight to Baltimore/Washington with 42 other veterans. At 76 years old, Esposito was one of the younger members of Flight Thunderbolt, the 27th honor flight conducted by the RI Fire Chiefs Honor Flight Hub.

Retired Johnston Fire Department firefighter Robert Forand, 72, of Scituate, an Army veteran who also served during the Vietnam War, was listed among Saturday’s Honor Flight attendees.

The senior member of the flight was World War II Army veteran Rocco Marcaccio who served in an anti-aircraft unit that was part of the D-Day invasion and went on to fight across France and Germany to join forces with the Russians at the Elbe River. Rocco is 101 years old. He was accompanied by his son, Paul, who served as his guardian for the day-long trip that took Flight Thunderbolt to the war memorials in the nation’s capitol, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, where he and 95-year-old Roland Theroux had the honor of placing the wreath during the change of the guard.

Rocco, whose memory of the war is sharp, didn’t delve into the horrors of the experience, rather the outcome.

“I was well worth it. This is the finest country in the world,” he said.

Vietnam veterans may not have shared Rocco’s opinion on the justification of the war. Esposito was welcomed home – he went on a 27-year career with the Rhode Island State Police – by family and friends but remembers a cold reception when he wore his uniform to church.

That surely wasn’t the situation Saturday morning where firefighters, police, elected officials, family and friends lined the terminal entry, saluting, applauding and cheering as the veterans and their guardians filed in to the beat of the Rhode Island Professional Pipes and Drums Like so many, members of Troop 4 Gaspee were up at 4 a.m. in order to be prepared to greet the veterans more than an hour later.

“It brought a tear to my eye,” Esposito said of the airport reception.

RI Honor Flight founder not about to slow down

It’s those moments that motivate retired Providence Fire Chief George Farrell to keep running the honor flights. Founder of the RI Fire Chief s Honor Flight, Farrell’s interest was sparked when he chanced to be in the Washington/Baltimore terminal when an Honor Flight was passing through in 2010. He was compelled to offer a similar experience to Rhode Island veterans. Flight Alpha, Rhode Island’s first Honor Flight was held in 2012. In was comprised principally of World War II veterans, who Farrell wanted to recognize before they were gone. As the ranks of WWII veterans thinned, the fights were broadened to Korean War veterans and terminally ill Vietnam War vets. Now the Honor Flight is looking to recruit Vietnam as well as veterans would have served during other conflicts.

Since that first flight, Farrell estimates the Rhode Island Honor Flights have taken more than 800 to Washington. It wouldn’t have been possible without some steadfast partners. Depending on the numbers, Honor Flights can cost upwards of $25,000. Multiple companies and organizations have stepped up to sponsor an Honor Flight, but few more consistently than the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. IBEW Local 104 was the prime sponsor of Flight Thunderbolt.

In fact, it was a moment of inspiration that resulted in the naming of the flight and incorporation of a bolt of lightening into the flight logo. The IBEW logo has an electrical bolt and the P47 WWII fighter plane was a Thunderbolt. It made for a perfect combination.

Farrell was more of a whirlwind than a thunderbolt Saturday as vets arrived at the Southwest gate to a spread of Dunkin Donuts coffee, donuts and muffins. Farrell buzzed between officials there to wish the veterans well and seeing to logistics of the upcoming flight.

“He’s got everything down to a science. He remembers everything,” said Karen Casale, who manages the Honor Flight office and has been on three flights, the first in 2018.

A flight back in time

The flight is a trip back in time. For many, it is a pause to reflect on life and on events that changed lives and shaped history.

For Robert Soccia, who is retired after 40 years as a physical education teacher with Warwick schools, returning from Vietnam in 1968 “was a different way of life.” He served as an Army combat engineer in Saigon although he did a variety of jobs from cook to radio operator. It took some time to adjust to non regimented routine.

For Krissie Morrisette, of the RI Veterans Home who has served as a flight guardian to numerous veterans, the flight is about the stories.

On Saturday Roland Theroux, who served in the Navy, Army and Air Force was her charge.

“How did you manage that?’ Theroux was asked.

“At 95 my mind doesn’t work too well,” he replied.

Morrisette was there to help. She knew his story and as she brought up points he recalled how after WWII the Navy was downsizing and he wanted to remain in military service. They didn’t have a place for him. Next came the Army and three years in Japan and then the Air Force were he worked in the motor pool. And Morrisette reminded him of his wife who thought they would be living in Hawaii but ended up in Montana. Theroux was happy to be in Montana.

“Oh yes,” he added, “and two sons who served in the military.”

Morrisette’s favorite story is of WWII vet Leo Heroux who in the days following D-Day was instructed to warn a farmer that a company would be coming though his property the following day. Heroux did as instructed and as he informed the farmer his daughter came down stairs.

Talk about thunderbolts. This was one of them. After the war they married and they stayed on to run the farm.

vets, veterans, flight


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here