"Tears were flowing like the Potomac River," Sergeant William "Ken" Miller said when he was called to the podium during a luncheon given for participants in the inaugural Central Valley Honor Flight.
At the podium, Miller was presented with a 12X20-inch reproduction of a painting depicting the WWII battle on Saipan. That painting shows Miller, a young Marine, in the midst of the fighting.
Miller had first seen a picture of the painting, "Saipan, Bonzai Charge" when he was presented with a book, "The Last Great Bonzai," written by Bradley M. Gates (Lt. Col., USMC, Ret.). The book, now out of print, gives the account of that battle on Saipan.
Miller feels that book and the painting recognize the sacrifices made by so many men in that battle on July 7, 1944. "Recognition for that battle that those men didn't die in vain," is what the book and painting symbolize for Miller.
Congressman Jim Costa presented the picture at a luncheon in the Library of Congress in front of about 300, including veterans, their guardians, and other dignitaries. Larry Smith, Miller's grandson-in-law and his guardian on the trip, was asked to bring Miller to the podium for the presentation.
Miller could not pick out one favorite monument that he saw on the three-day tour in Washington, D.C.
"All of them were made by man under the guidance of God," he said. "You got a feeling that came from the ground up. It swelled you up until you think you are going to burst," Miller said of the solemn changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
Mail call on the return flight to Fresno caught Miller by surprise. Veteran's names were called out just as they had been while these men were in the service some 70 years ago. The mail they received were cards and letters from family and friends thanking the veterans for their service to this country.
"Papa Ken, I cannot imagine what life would be like right now if you had not sacrificed everything for us in order to protect our freedom," said a letter from Miller's great granddaughter, Jessica Fullmer Koenen, her husband, Peter, and their son, Josiah. "Life could be so different for us right now, had you not made a selfless decision to protect our country."
Soon after mail call, the plane landed in Fresno where Miller and the other veterans were welcomed as heroes.
Plans are being made for the next Central Valley Honor Flight. Veterans who wish to participate in that flight can apply online at cvhonorflight.org. Volunteers and guardians may also apply through this link.
Priority is given to WWII veterans and veterans of other wars who are terminally ill.
Tax deductible donations to the program can be made by check payable to: Fresno Regional Foundation. Write Central Valley Honor Flight on the memo line and mail to: Fresno Regional Foundation, 5250 N. Palm Ave. #424, Fresno, Calif., 93704.
Donations can also be made online at cvhonorflight.org/donate.html. Funds raised are used to charter planes that send veterans to Washington D.C. in commemoration of their sacrifice, and in honor of their service to this country.
A family friend in Mariposa whose own father was a bomber pilot in WWII and died without coming to grips with his wartime experiences learned of Miller's desire to see the painting of the battle on Saipan.
After he contacted a curator at the Naval Historical Center where the U.S. Navy art collection is housed, the painting was finally located in storage in Springfield, Mass.
Through efforts of the curator and staff in Congressman Costa's office, a reproduction of the painting, originally thought to be titled "The Counterattack of 'H' Battery," but actually titled "Saipan, Bonzai Charge," was created and framed within a number of days so that it could be presented to Miller during his Honor Flight tour in Washington, D.C.