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D.C. trip has WWII vets flying high

Northfield resident takes part

Recorder/David Rainville
Robert Hall Jr., of Northfield, was among 75 Massachusetts WWII veterans taken on an "Honor Flight" to Washington D.C. to visit the WWII memorial among other attractions. Honor Flight is a nonprofit aimed at giving every surviving WWII veteran a chance to visit their nation's capital for free.

Recorder/David Rainville Robert Hall Jr., of Northfield, was among 75 Massachusetts WWII veterans taken on an "Honor Flight" to Washington D.C. to visit the WWII memorial among other attractions. Honor Flight is a nonprofit aimed at giving every surviving WWII veteran a chance to visit their nation's capital for free.

NORTHFIELD — When Robert Hall’s best high school friend decided to join the Navy toward the end of World War II, Hall lied about his age, left school and joined up, too.

Hall’s friend enlisted in the Navy as soon as he turned 17 in September of 1944. Hall wouldn’t turn 17 and become eligible until the next month, but he wasn’t about to let that stop him.

“I went to Town Hall, got a copy of my birth certificate, erased the seven in ‘1927,’ changed it to a six, and we signed up together,” Hall explained.

Hall will turn 86 on Oct. 25. Entering the service so close to the end of the war and so young, Hall was one of the youngest in a crowd of New England WWII veterans who got a free trip to Washington, D.C. recently.

On Sept. 28, Hall, 75 other WWII veterans from Massachusetts, and an aide for each, joined similar contingents from Rhode Island and New York.

They were flown there courtesy of the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit that wants to give every surviving WWII veteran a trip to see their war’s memorial in the nation’s capital.

Hall said the veterans had quite the warm welcome.

“We were greeted at the airport by all sorts of honor guards,” he said. Military and police bands played for them and other veterans, active service members and civilians thanked them for their service.

From the airport, the groups loaded onto three buses and were escorted by a motorcade of motorcycles through downtown D.C.

“We were accompanied by Rolling Thunder members from all over on their motorcycles,” said Hall. Leading the veterans’ motorcycle club were local police cruisers, parting the traffic so the vets could make a timely trip.

The veterans on the trip came from all parts of the service and when they got to the World War II Memorial, they were greeted by generals from each branch. Also there to meet them was retired Gen. Colin Powell, former secretary of state and past chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, who was an Army lieutenant.

“It was a very impressive turnout,” said Hall. “It was great to have someone say ‘thank you’ after all these years.”

Hall was dismayed to hear that, days later, another Honor Flight group was nearly denied entrance to the memorial, because of the government shutdown that includes national parks. The veterans were not put off by the temporary barriers that had been put up and got past the barricade and into the memorial.

“It’s kind of silly that they closed it,” said Hall. “It’s a wide-open memorial. There are no gates, no guards, you just walk in. They had to bring in, and pay, more people to put up the barricade and stand there to keep people out than they’d have there if it were open.”

Hall said the trip was a great experience, and encouraged others to sign up. The Honor Flight Network only serves WWII veterans, but hopes to reach those who served in other wars once it’s gotten to all those from WWII.

If you served in WWII, you can sign up at www.honorflight.org. Friends and family members can also sign up a veteran; that’s how Hall got there. A friend of his had gone on a previous Honor Flight, and signed Hall up to go.

Before his trip, Hall had hoped he might run into some old buddies from the barracks. Though he met other veterans there that had gone through the same boot camp as he did, he didn’t come across anyone that he’d known personally during his service.

While Hall signed up and attended boot camp with his friend, the two soon parted ways. Hall’s service in the Civil Air Patrol and proficiency with a .22-caliber rifle had him picked for ordnance and aerial gunnery school, while his friend was sent to the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion and was shipped to an Oklahoma base.

Hall would serve in the Naval Air Station in Monterrey, Calif., where he took to the skies rather than the seas.

“We flew up and down the California coast, looking for Japanese subs,” said Hall. Hall rode in the rear of the plane, manning a single .30-caliber machine gun.

Later, he would be sent into the Pacific aboard the aircraft carrier the USS Casablanca. Hall was aboard the carrier when the war ended and he and several other non-essential crew members were dropped off in San Diego after the war.

He spent the rest of his Navy days as a draftsman, truck driver and occasional chauffeur for Navy officers. After his enlistment was up, he headed back to school.

Though Hall never finished high school, he did graduate from Brown University.

“They held a veterans’ college, where you could get in by passing an entrance exam, regardless of whether you graduated high school,” said Hall. As long as they maintained a B average for two semesters, they could transfer to the regular university.

Though about 300 WWII veterans were admitted to the program, only about 30 finished. Hall was among them.

While in school, he’d signed up for the Rhode Island National Guard. In April of 1950, he spoke to his commanding officer about a discharge, and got married that June.

On his way to his honeymoon with his first wife, Hall turned on the radio and heard that President Harry S. Truman had called up the National Guard to go to North Korea. He thanked his lucky stars that he’d been discharged and could settle into married life.

Or so he thought.

That September, he was working in a Providence store, and got a phone call looking for Sgt. Hall.

Due to a clerical error, Hall had never really been discharged from the Guard, and now he was being called back to active duty.

He was put in charge of educating troops at Fort Pickett, Va., where he served until he was discharged due to a foot problem.

Though his service days are behind him, Hall is still very interested in the military. He serves on Northfield’s Trustees of Veterans Memorials and is working to make sure the town has a memorial for each war it’s sent soldiers to.

Hall’s library is full of books on wars, battles and conflicts. A Civil War buff especially, he also has a collection of several items from the war.

He fondly remembers meeting a Civil War veteran when he was just a boy, in 1938.

“After he spoke to our class, he shook our hands, and told us ‘you just shook the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln.’”

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