World War II veteran Earl Collins took off on his first Honor Flight on Saturday, but not before his friends and neighbors gave him a proper sendoff.
Collins, 92, has lived at Aegis on Madison for nearly four years. He moved there with his wife, Joyce, whom he’d been married to for 67 years before her passing last year.
During WWII, Collins was a radio specialist, and later went on to have a long career with the YMCA.
He’d had a few other opportunities to take an Honor Flight in the past, but something always got in the way. Last time, it was a broken hip.
Aegis life enrichment director Susan Rauch helped set up the Honor Flight, where veterans are honored for their service with a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit its many national monuments. The 92-year-old veteran said he’s most looking forward to seeing the WWII monument.
“There’s a big focus on getting the WWII veterans, right now,” Rauch said, adding she’d tried setting up Collins a few times before. “We’re so excited he’s going now. We have quite a few WWII veterans that live here.”
Collins will be accompanied by his daughter, Jill Hallin. Another daughter lives in D.C., as well as a granddaughter who works for the Gates Foundation.
While en route to D.C., Rauch said, Collins will receive mail during the Honor Flight, as if he were still in service. That mail will be more than a dozen thank-you letters from fellow Aegis residents and staff.
Collins recounted some stories from his time in England during WWII during a celebration held at Aegis on Thursday, Oct. 12.
Life in service
Collins grew up in Stockton, California, and he was 15 when the war started. He decided to enlist rather than be drafted.
“I was 17, and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps,” he said. “That was before they had the Air Force.”
Even before enlisting, Collins and his classmates were supporting the war efforts by raising money to buy war bonds. The way they figured it, every $675 was another military jeep. Collins said he remembers everyone standing outside the school for a photo with 25 jeeps.
“Actually, we raised enough for 47 jeeps,” he said, “but they didn’t bring them all down.”
After the war, a general, who was the father of one of his schoolmates, tracked down one of the jeeps. It had made its way to North Africa and into Europe through the Italian Campaign, and later arrived back in the United States as surplus. It was bought in Wisconsin, and later sold to someone else in Texas.
It was bought back, and spent 10 years at the head of Stockton’s annual parade, Collins said.
“They bought it and brought it back, and they spent a few years refurbishing it,” he said, adding the high school principal would later receive letters from soldiers who had benefited from the dozens of other jeeps the school had helped purchase.
Collins had wanted to be pilot, he said, but he ended up going through training for electronics and radio operations.
He eventually headed out to Europe from the Brooklyn Navy Yard on a Liberty ship that was ferrying Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter bombers.
“I think there were about 75 ships in this convoy,” he said, “and the weather was bad.”
After arriving in Liverpool, England, Collins worked in a radio shack and on B-17 bombers at the base where he was stationed for the next 1 1/2 years. Part of his job was stocking the planes with chaff — aluminum strips that could be dispersed in the air to confuse enemy radar screens.
Collins is modest about his service, saying he didn’t see much action.
“Many had to be the backup, and that’s what I was,” he said. “You do what you have to do. You take what comes along. If I had my druthers, I’d have become a pilot, but it didn’t work out that way.”
But, through Collins’ work as a radio specialist, he was able to get the details early for when Victory in Europe Day was going to occur — May 8, 1945. He put in for a three-day pass to London and was there for the celebration.
“It was a great time when that ended,” he said of the war, “so I was in their big celebration. All the people were hugging and kissing, and they’d see an American, and they’d say, ‘thank you.’”
Collins returned to the United States aboard the Queen Elizabeth luxury liner, the same one that took actor and bomber pilot Jimmy Stewart home. Stewart was on one of the upper decks, he said.
“We could see him every once in a while.”
Collins spent four years at the University of Pacific in California on the GI Bill, and then went to George Williams College in Chicago, where he trained to be a YMCA director.
He returned to California, where he worked at Ys in Santa Barbara and Sacramento, and led the openings of new facilities in Woodland and Newport Beach.
The first time he met his wife, Collins was 14 and she was 10. A decade later, they reconnected when his best friend married her sister.
“She was a bridesmaid, and I was the best man,” he said, “and so the rest was history.”
They started a family, and all of them eventually went on to spend 3 1/2 years in Rome while Collins helped establish YMCAs in Italy.
When they came back, they spent a brief time in Seattle before heading back to California. When Collins retired after 38 years with the Y, they came returned to Seattle because Joyce liked the area so much.