Together they have 271 years of life. Separately they have each served their country in time of war and lived to tell of it.
Now they jokingly call themselves “The Wheelchair Brigade.”
In July of 2012, Jim Kessler of Placerville, Bill Flynn of Diamond Springs and Ron Jermstad of Camino got on a plane headed for Washington D.C. where they were honored for their contribution of service to the people of the United States.
At Kessler’s home, the three talk of their Honor Flight adventure and of the action they saw in World War II.
Jermstad, the youngest of the trio at 86, served in the Army Air Corps and the Navy for 24 years, beginning in 1944.
He was still in flight training in the Army Air Corps when World War II ended. He was discharged in 1945, but accepted a commission in the Navy in 1948. He retired from the Navy as a Lt. Commander in 1968, having flown every type of aircraft the Navy owned, having taught at the Naval Academy and having been stationed all over the world.
Kessler, 93, began his service in the Navy in 1943, seeing much action aboard the highly decorated USS Boise in both the Mediterranean and the South Pacific in World War II and retiring as a Naval captain in 1969.
Flynn, 92, was born and raised in Georgetown. He enlisted in the Navy in 1939 and served out the entirety of World War II aboard the USS San Diego, the second most decorated ship in WWII, and the USS Benevolence hospital ship as a corpsman. He was Chief Pharmacist Mate at the time of his discharge at the end of the war in 1945.
Jermstad heard about the Honor Flight program and applied for it. Honor Flight takes veterans, free of charge, on weekend trips to Washington D.C. to visit the World War II memorial and other sites, honoring their service with special welcomes and recognition.
“I bugged them and bugged them, but I didn’t hear anything,” said Jermstad.
Finally, he was notified that I had been selected for an Honor Flight, but by this time, Jermstad had decided that his friends Kessler and Flynn needed to go, too, and he let Honor Flight know he wasn’t going without them.
“It took a couple more years, but this July they had a flight organized and we all got to go,” said Jermstad.
“Ron’s son drove us to the airport — we wouldn’t have gotten there without him,” said Kessler. “We were almost too old to go.”
David Jermstad volunteered to serve as the trio’s Guardian. Honor flights are set up with each veteran or small group of veterans having a Guardian who takes care of transportation to the departure airport, boarding passes, luggage and other details so as to allow the veterans to enjoy a worry-free experience.
“They took care of us so well; it ended up that each one of us had our own guide,” said Kessler. “Two or three hundred civilians, including lots of beautiful women all lined up to greet us.”
“When we arrived in Washington, there were fire engines hosing the plane in a water salute on both sides of us,” said Jermstad. “It was first class treatment and very moving.”
“Everywhere we went, there were groups of people waiting for us,” said Flynn. “When I got out of the Navy, no one recognized me. I was just another sailor, but on Honor Flight in Washington and when we came home to San Francisco they honored us first for being in the service during time of war and second, for surviving.”
“I’d been to the memorial before, but it was different going with a group and being recognized for the service.This was something I really appreciated,” said Kessler.”It made you feel good.”
Despite some good natured kidding, the three agree that the attack on Pearl Harbor was a set-up by President Roosevelt to jump start the U.S. entry into the war.
“It was common knowledge in the military,” said Jermstad. “We were still in negotiations with the Japanese. Roosevelt set up the scenario to happen.”
“The Germans had the British on the ropes,” said Flynn. “There were only older ships in that harbor; all the subs, cruisers and aircraft carriers had been sent out to sea.”
“It’s just hard to accept that 2,500 people died in that attack,” said Kessler.
World War II was the war that united the country, according to Jermstad, Flynn and Kessler.
“There was no quibbling over whether we should be in it after Pearl Harbor. People stood in line to enlist,” said Kessler. “Even civilians got involved.”
“It wasn’t like Vietnam when people spat on the flag and the soldiers,” said Jermstad. “The whole country rose en mass and even the conscientious objectors made contributions. We’ve never been that united again, not even after 911.”
They agree that the atomic bomb was a better way to resolve the war than trying to invade Japan. “It saved millions of American and Japanese lives,” said Flynn. “Japan would have fought forever and they were absolutely starving.”
Flynn recalled an appendix operation aboard ship. He was administering anesthesia by dripping ether into a cone covering the patient’s nose.
“I had to watch his face so I could keep him under but not too deep. Suddenly our 20 mm gun went off. We were under attack, but I had to keep administering ether. That was a frightening time,” Flynn said.
Once, while being strafed by Japanese planes, Flynn went to the aid of a wounded man on deck.
“I was dragging him off the deck when we were hit and I was slapped up against the turret. I was still holding the guy’s collar, but he was nowhere to be found. Later, I went below deck, still looking for him and there he was claiming that some @#$ had stolen his shirt,” said Flynn.
Kessler was boat officer for General Douglas MacArthur during his return to the Pacific.
“We went to many islands together and I got to know him. Once we were in New Guinea where the Australians had invaded. As we walked we were told to stay right with the Australians, but the Japanese began firing at us from about 100 yards away. I hit the ground, but MacArthur stood there and told them what to do to take out the Japanese. A bullet went between his arms but he wasn’t hit. They knocked out the Japanese and we went on. I had a very interesting war,” Kessler said.
Flynn proudly wears his USS San Diego cap and a yellow Honor Flight T-shirt, the back of which reads, “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.”
Thank you, Bill, Jim and Ron.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.