Brothers Murphy and Irvin Naquin traveled to Washington, D.C. last October, two of a dozen veterans who flew from New Orleans that day. It was a free trip to see the sights in the nation’s capital, a thank you for their service to the country.
For Murphy, it was his first trip to D.C: “I was glad to see it.”
In fact, the 94-year-old had never flown a plane before that day. And the last time he’d traveled out of Louisiana was when he rode on a tank in the First Army, landing in France six days after D-Day.
Thursday is the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Irvin, 87, who served with the U.S. Army in Korea, said his trip to Washington was an experience he won’t forget.
“I shook hands with a lot of people. We had the red carpet out,” he said. “They were all standing up clapping when we boarded the plane. It was really well put together.”
They were on the inaugural excursion of Honor Flight Louisiana, which had formed in 2017. The group is a latecomer. There are 130 similar nonprofits operating in 46 states, some more than a decade old. Many of those chapters send multiple delegations to Washington.
They were out in force last Oct. 6.
“One had four fully packed buses,” recalled Dillon Mathies, a founder of Honor Club Louisiana.
The first honor flight was in 2005 in Ohio. It brought with it a dozen World War II veterans, primarily to see the newly constructed World War II Memorial on the Washington Mall. Since then, nearly 225,000 veterans have taken free honor flights.
Over the years, the proportion of honor flight passengers who fought in World War II has dropped as that population has shrunk.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates the ranks of living WWII veterans once topped 16 million, but is now less than 400,000. About 5,000 of those are in Louisiana. An average of 348 of these veterans die every day. By 2029, the number remaining is projected to be in the low thousands.
Mathies said part of the inspiration for helping to found Honor Guard Louisiana was his grandfather who served in World War II.
Mathies said he’s gratified his organization was able to attract two WWII veterans on its first trip and he’s hoping another three can go on the group’s next trip, planned this coming October.
But he knows time is moving fast. That thought, he said, keeps him active in the group, despite working a full-time job as a consultant and serving as a battalion communications officer for the Louisiana Army National Guard.
“At some point there will be no WWII veterans left,” he said. “It’s difficult to think about.”
And while there are still millions of living veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars, those numbers too are steadily declining.
“Those wars aren’t that far apart (from WWII),” Mathies said. “In five or 10 years, we will be up against that same wall.”
The Naquin brothers grew up on a plantation near Labadieville, two of five siblings. Oldest brother Cedric and Murphy, second oldest, both served in World War II, both in Europe.
Murphy has written about his time at war. He served as light tank crewman and as a loader/assistant drive in the 38th Cavalry, rolling from Omaha Beach all way to the Uhlava River in western Czechoslovakia 11 months later. The 38th Cavalry was among the first to enter Paris, and they were greeted by a jubilant scene. The Parisian joy that day reminded him of the spirit of a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans.
He said the fighting was not that dangerous for him, noting that his tank was usually miles from the front. But one cold evening in the winter of 1944, he confronted an unexpected danger. Huddled with eight other men around a lone heater, a gust of wind set their tent on fire.
“Oh yeah, that burnt down,” he said. “We got out there with just the clothes we had on.”
Irvin recalls the war years with less fondness. He remembers his mother was often distraught, waiting for news on her boys away fighting.
“I would call those dog days,” he said. “She’d cry a lot. It wasn’t too nice. She wouldn’t go to a movie. She was just waiting for them to come back.”
Irvin doesn’t like to talk much about his own 14 months at war, serving in Korea.
“You never forget it. You never forget it,” he said. “I spent 101 days on Heartbreak Ridge. It wasn’t very nice.”
After their respective wars, both boys left Labadieville for the New Orleans area, spending their careers there as machinists.
Irvin Naquin is more worldly than his older brother. He’d visited D.C. before. He also took family trips in 2015 to Paris and two years later to Rome. But he counts his most recent D.C. trip as special.
“They called the Korean War a forgotten war, but it wasn’t forgotten that day,” he said.
Theresa Tarver Worsham also enjoyed herself on the honor flight last October. The daughter of WWII veteran, she ended up serving for two years as a nurse for the U.S. Navy at a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, during the Vietnam War.
“Sometime we were the first people that the med evacs from Vietnam saw when they got back to the United States,” she recalled.
Now, 69, Worsham, who lives in Jena, is active in veterans activities, including the Louisiana Women Veterans Association. She said women have historically been forgotten in veterans remembrances and most women didn’t even think to wonder about that.
“It wasn’t that much was ever done for women, and now at my age, I can say, ‘We did something, we did!”
She said she initially planned to go on the honor flight last October just as a volunteer. But a veteran who'd planned to go canceled at the last minute. She was offered his slot instead. She accepted and she found the experience gratifying.
“Everybody ought to go up there, to see where we’ve been, what we’ve done and how we did it,” she said. “And everybody should have a little recognition and a thank you.”
And she said she also made a friend that day with another Louisiana veteran, who had served in Korea and Vietnam. They enjoyed walking off from their younger guardians.
“We were just playing them and hiding from them and saying, ‘These young whippersnappers can’t keep up with us,’” Worsham said.
The two have kept up since, she said.
“He sent me a Christmas card and we’ve talked on the phone. What a connection there!” she said. “That’s enough the reason right there to go.”