Honor Flight Conyers
* To apply to become an Honor Flight veteran, guardian or volunteer, visit www.honorflightconyers.com and fill out the application.
* The next scheduled Honor Flight will be in September.
* For more information about the Honor Flights Conyers, call 770-483-4049 or email HonorFlightConyers@comcast.net
Gary Gambrell stood silently and respectfully as he watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
The all-volunteer unit of sentinels which guards the tomb 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in all weather conditions perform the elaborate ritual every half hour from April 1 through Sept. 30 and every hour from Oct. 1 to March 31, according to the Arlington National Cemetery website. But on this day, a slight variation occurred.
“The guard drug his foot in honor of the veterans,” said Gambrell, who attended the service with 24 other veterans as part of an Honor Flight from Conyers. “It was a real impressive ceremony.”
The scene also struck Gambrell’s grandson-in-law, Clayton Dillingham, who accompanied the former Air Force enlisted man.
“When they drag their heel, it’s very noticeable,” the 26-year-old Gainesville man said. “It was a nod to the veterans.”
This experience and many more moments were part of an almost 18-hour day April 19 for 25 veterans and their 25 guardians during the Honor Flight.
A national nonprofit, Honor Flight and its regional hubs take veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam to visit the memorials in Washington, D.C.
“Many may not be able to get there and see them because of physical problems and financial problems,” said David Smith, president of Honor Flight Conyers.
Each year, the hubs accept nominations to take a war veteran to the nation’s capital. This year, Gambrell was one of the lucky 25 members chosen.
The 91-year-old Murrayville man heard about the April flight during a visit to the Veterans Affairs office in Oakwood and decided to “give it a try.” But he never expected to see such an outpouring of love and respect during his trip.
“They had a crowd of people there to greet us,” he said. “I was real surprised. It was really a moving experience. I didn’t know that many people would show up for a bunch of old codgers like us.”
Then Gambrell was whisked onto a tour bus and shuttled around the city to view the sights, including the cemetery and memorials for WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, Iwo Jima and the Air Force.
“I was really impressed particularly with the World War II Memorial,” Gambrell said. “That was one that I thought really stood out compared to the others.”
The former AT&T employee explained how each column represented a state, and the background was filled with stars marking all of the GIs who lost their lives.
“There were a lot of stars,” Gambrell said as his eyes widened when he recalled the sight.
The World War II veteran recounted one of the most vivid and tragic scenes during his three years of service.
He said one afternoon three planes came down on top of each other and crashed at the airfield.
“It killed everybody on board,” he said. “It was unusual.”
However, a lot of things happened during the war. Gambrell, who joined with the hopes of becoming a fighter pilot, doesn’t dwell on those thoughts. Instead, he remembers other moments from his time serving as a top turret gunner in a B-26 with the 344th bombing group.
Gambrell said cigarettes were better for bargaining overseas than paper money. So, he and his pilot saved them for certain occasions.
“My pilot said he wanted to get this Belgium woman to make his wife a dress out of a parachute that was discarded,” he said, adding the man did not have enough money to foot the bill. “So I let him have my cigarettes. He shipped out … and that was the last I saw of my cigarettes.”
Gambrell also recounts with such clarity where he was and what he was doing when the war in Europe was declared over on May 8, 1945.
“I was in Belgium when I heard the news in the chow line,” he said. “Needless to say everybody was pretty happy. They started firing weapons over their heads into the air. It was a dangerous time … but everybody wanted to celebrate.”
Gambrell served in Europe for another year and was discharged in April 1946. Nine months later, he married his wife, Doris, on Jan. 18, 1947, after meeting her at church.
“She was the best-looking redhead I laid my eyes on,” he said with a chuckle and twinkle in his eye. “I didn’t think I had a chance with her.”
The couple was married for 68 years and had three daughters and one son. Doris died in November 2015.
His daughters still live nearby with their families, but his son was killed in a motorcycle accident at age 21.
“It was the worst day of my life,” Gambrell said as he looked out over his 60-acre farm. “I bought this farm for him. He and I were going to farm it together.
“Things don’t work out the way you want them to.”
The farm, however, is the cement that keeps his family together, Gambrell said.
His youngest daughter, Kathy Savage, who lives next door, agreed.
“He’s got a big porch and it has a huge table,” she said. “It’s a really great place for us to get together. Everybody loves going to the farm.”
Savage said she could tell her father loved going to Washington, D.C.
“He looked forward to talking with the other veterans who have seen … and known what he had gone through,” she said. “I felt honored that he would have the opportunity to go and experience this with other veterans.”
Dillingham, who is Savage’s son-in-law, said Gambrell appeared to enjoy trip. He noted another veteran was situated in the same kind of plane Gambrell was in as a gunner.
“It was pretty cool to watch them talk,” he said. “A lot of the time, Gary will keep to himself. And he seemed to really like talking to other veterans.”
Dillingham also got a kick out of listening to their stories, but didn’t want to share the others he heard. He wanted to keep their privacy.
“It was fun to listen to the stories,” Dillingham said. “It was crazy to this listen to how they got into some situations and how they had to do things to survive.”
But Gambrell would not think twice about enlisting again, though.
“It was a pleasure to serve,” he said. “If I had to do it again, I would because we live in the greatest country in the world.”