“Yah, I liked biking. I joined the Narragansett Bay wheelmen,” says Roger Desjardin, who at 98 was the senior member Honor Flight Freedom that left Monday morning at 6:30 from Green …
“Yah, I liked biking. I joined the Narragansett Bay wheelmen,” says Roger Desjardin, who at 98 was the senior member Honor Flight Freedom that left Monday morning at 6:30 from Green Airport for a full day in Washington, DC. To the surprise of those gathered around him, Roger pulls out an iPhone from the Army uniform he wore when he was discharged on Jan. 24, 1946 (it still fits him) and scrolls through photographs until he settles at one showing him on a bike. It was taken when he was 58 on a 360 mile round trip ride to New Hampshire.
“Did you have a beer when you got up there?”
“No, I drank water and milk. I had a beer when I finally got home,” he says to laughs..
North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi, who served as Desjardin’s guardian during the flight takes in the story. He’s not surprised. Lombardi selected Desjardins as the grand marshal for the town’s Memorial Day Parade. He is perpetually awed by the WWII veteran’s recollection of events and positive outlook. In a matter of fact tone, almost as if he was talking about someone else, Desjardins relates how he was in New Guinea , then the Philippines and at the end of the war a subway guard in Okinawa, Japan where he learned some Japanese. He said a few phrases to impress his listeners.
During his deployment while hunkered down in a fox hole his ear drums were blown out by an exploding shell and he sustained other injuries, which he doesn’t detail. He was evacuated for medical attention and then shipped back to the battle line only to have shrapnel for a grenade hit his eye. He says his vision is okay now.
After his discharge and on his return to Rhode Island, Desjardins got a job with Owens Corning as a pipefitter, a job he kept until retiring. He also married in 1950.
“What took you so long,” he was asked.
“It took her five years to make up her mind,” he answers.
As the oldest member of the flight, Desjardins accompanied by Mayor Lombardi were selected to place a wreath on the grave of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery during the flight that had them visiting the World War II, Korean and Vietnam Memorials. Also assisting with the wreath laying were WWII vet Anthony Basamian, 96, and Paul Vadenais, who sponsored the flight in honor of his father , Normand G. Vadenais (a Corporal in the U.S. Army). For a first time since the first Rhode Island Honor Flight founded by retired Providence Fire Chief George Farrell in 2012, 15 members of the Rhode Island Professional Fire Fighters Pipes and Drums accompanied the flight and performed at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was also a first time Farrell and his crew of devoted volunteers have held a flight on a Monday, which required an earlier than customary Saturday Southwest flight. Boarding started at 6:30 so those attending assembled in the short term parking lot at 4:30 in order to parade into the terminal at 5 to the cheers of family and friends and first responders who stood rigid as they saluted.
When Farrell started the flights, he focused on recognizing World War II vets, then as those ranks thinned or were incapable of making the trip, he reached out to Korean veterans. On Monday 15 Vietnam vets were aboard the flight. Monday’s was the 28th Rhode Island flight. It was purposely held Monday as June 19 is Juneteenth, a federal holiday celebrating “Freedom Day” and the end of slavery.
Desjardins was not the sole WWII vet.
Raymond Raiche, who served in the Navy during the battle of Imo Jima, would have gone on an earlier flight but didn’t want to leave his wife alone. On Monday he was accompanied by his son, David who served as his guardian.
“It’s amazing,” said David, “I’m learning more and more about what he did (during the war).” In the battle of Imo Jima, Ray said his job was to retrieve bodies from the beaches.
On arriving at the Southwest gate, veterans were told it was going to be a hot day in Washington, to drink plenty of water, to take their meds and to make a stop at the restroom as that would be difficult once aboard the plane. It’s details like that that Farrell and his crew have thought of to ensure that every participating veteran is cared for and thanked for their service.