Puget Sound Honor Flight is part of the Honor Flight Network, which was established in 2004. The nonprofit organization transports veterans, at no cost to the veteran, to visit and reflect at the memorials built in their honor. The hub has been serving Western Washington since March 2013 and has organized 16 trips and transported more than 750 veterans to Washington, D.C.
Organizers plan trips each April, May, September and October with more than 50 veterans and 50 guardians and volunteer staff on each. Priority is given to World War II veterans, who are dying at the rate of 640 each day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Korea vets and people who served in Vietnam have the next priority when seats are allocated.
Veterans can obtain an application online at www.pugetsoundhonorflight.org/applications
People interested in supporting the project may donate online t www.pugetsoundhonorflight.org or mail a check, payable to Puget Sound Honor Flight, to Puget Sound Honor Flight, P.O. Box 434, Grapeview, WA 98546.
‘These guys were warriors and heroes. … I felt as if I were walking with giants.’
— Raymond Cochran
veteran’s son, describing wartime exploits revealed during the Honor Flight
By PATRICK WEBB
A tall, tough Texan who worked 30 years for the PUD is not prone to cry.
But it happened when Richard “Skip” Cochran glimpsed the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Navy veteran broke down in tears as memories of his 1950s service came flooding back.
“I just lost it,” said the 83-year-old Ocean Park man, who recently returned from an expenses-paid Honor Flight to the nation’s capital.
Cochran’s emotion stemmed from his service as an aircrew member on the U.S.S. Point Cruz. The aircraft carrier’s planes flew varied missions over Korea, some equipped with sophisticated cameras which photographed the results of bombing runs.
Cochran was assigned to catapult and landing crews which deployed cables and nets across the deck to bring aircraft home safely.
One incident is indelibly imprinted on his mind.
A plane trying to land missed the cable. “He caught the second cable, but it ripped the tailhook off. He landed on top of one or two more aircraft.” The flight deck erupted in flames. “I grabbed a ‘mule’ (tractor) and pushed the planes off the side.”
The 1954 citation from his commanding officer, Capt. Frederick J. Brush, describes how a “dangerous fire broke out, engulfing the wreckage of six planes in flames and smoke.
“As a member of the fire-fighting party, you immediately manned the foam and water hoses and despite the danger of exploding fuel tanks proceeded to fight the fire with extreme vigor and without regard for your own personal safety.”
There was no chance to attempt a rescue of the pilots — even if they had survived the fiery crash.
“Did I kill three people?” asked Cochran. “I never found out who lived and who died.”
The D.C. trip brought tears when he saw tributes to servicemen missing in action.
“It was emotional,” he recalled. “At the Korean War Memorial, it got to me. MIA. … Did I cause somebody to be in that section?”
His son Raymond Cochran, a retired car racing pit crew chief who lives in Battle Ground, accompanied his father on the trip.
The 60-year-old said the trip was “life changing” for both, but especially his father. “I think he got a sense of healing from it,” he said.
“When I was 8 or 9 years old, I found the citation in a drawer and said, ‘Dad, will you tell me about it?’ He said, ‘That and a dime will get you a cup of coffee.’ Mom later said that you don’t talk about it.
“He kept this inside him and never talked about it.”
Raymond Cochran said hearing his father’s story, and those of other veterans, reaffirmed his appreciation for their service. “These guys were warriors and heroes. They were asked to do the impossible with their friends dying around them. I felt as if I were walking with giants.”
Tradition of service
Richard Cochran was inspired to serve his country by the example of his twin uncles, Roy and Coy Bradstreet, who were both wounded in World War II. (Roy published a memoir, “A Cotton Pickin’ Soldier.”)
Already 6-0 tall at age 14, and unhappy with school and family life in his Texas Panhandle hometown, Cochran forged a document to apply for the U.S. Marine Corps. He was inches away — until his mother yelled at the recruiting sergeant to stop him boarding the bus. His father signed for him to join the U.S. Navy at age 17.
After schooling at bases in Florida, Tennessee and California, he shipped out to the Far East with stops in Hawaii and Japan before heading to the war zone. Other than the crash, his most vivid memories were observing U.S. naval firepower. “We would watch the battle-wagons and destroyers firing their 16-inch guns. It was like they were throwing Volkswagens through the air. They were two miles away.”
On his return to San Diego, he met a woman from Pasco who had moved to California. He and wife Beverly are coming up on 62 years of marriage this summer. They have two sons, Raymond in Battle Ground, Robert in Palm Springs, Calif., and four grandchildren.
His technical skills earned him postwar jobs, first with an aircraft company and then a power utility in California. Vacations on Orcas Island lured the Cochrans back to Beverly’s home state of Washington and he obtained a job with the Clark County Public Utility District after a stint in Tillamook, Ore. They lived in Battle Ground for 35 years and in retirement split their time between Ocean Park and Brenda, Ariz.
The May trip to Washington, D.C., was entirely paid for by the Puget Sound Honor Flight organization, a nonprofit group that flies veterans on what they call “One Last Mission.” They raise enough money from donations to make four trips a year. This latest one saw a group of veterans from all service branches and accompanying guardians, including World War II vets, many in wheelchairs.
One of the Honor Flight leaders, Denise Rouleau, said the group is inviting the few surviving World War II veterans plus Korea servicemen as the priority, with vets from Vietnam and later conflicts next. Rouleau, who owns a Seattle advertising agency, said working with the group is rewarding. “It’s such a great opportunity to have these vets share their stories.” She encouraged people to apply through the group’s website.
The trips cost about $1,000 per veteran.
Thanks to donations from supporters, they travel free.
Grateful for V.I.P. hospitality
“We didn’t put out a dime. Everything was taken care of,” said Cochran, who was presented with a medal by the government of the Republic of Korea, and returned home with souvenirs including a T-shirt, photos and a packet of poignant hand-written letters from children thanking him for his service.
A baseball cap given to Korea veterans carries the motto “Forgotten Victory,” a slogan reflecting that the conflict, which was authorized by President Truman, was considered a “police action” rather than a “war,” it did not have Congressional approval, and did not end conclusively.
“I am so grateful to the Honor Flight people,” said Cochran. “It was quite an experience, because they were things that I had not seen,” noting he visited Arlington National Cemetery, as well as the war monuments. “It was really an honor.” The World War II, Korea and Vietnam monuments have been added to the National Mall landmarks since the 1980s. The Korea monument, dedicated in 1995 on the 42nd anniversary of the armistice, features a triangular mural wall and stainless steel statues of military personnel in distinctive helmets and rain gear.
The group was given a flag-waving send-off and a return party at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Alaska Airlines decorated its aircraft with patriotic colors in addition to its distinctive Eskimo logo on the tail. A flight attendant wore a 1950s’ uniform, complete with pillbox hat and hose with the visible seam down the back of the legs.
TSA (Transportation Security Administration) staff at both airports shepherded them through checkpoints with minimal discomfort while airport passengers applauded and saluted them. On arrival in Washington, D.C., their buses had a police escort with Patriot Guard motorcyclists, who even stopped freeway traffic to give them priority.
Keeping the memories alive
The faded and stained citation is kept in a frame at the Cochran home. “After the fire was under control, you continued to assist in removing damaged aircraft and clearing away the wreckage from the flight deck so that flight operations could be resumed after a minimal delay,” wrote his captain. “Your devotion to duty and exemplary conduct were in keeping with the best traditions of the Naval Service.”
While Cochran lives with sadness recalling those Navy pilots who died off the coast of Korea, family members say telling his story publicly for the first time is therapeutic. He has had six decades to ponder the arbitrary nature of wartime deaths. “It was just a case of a piece of metal failing,” he said.
Now the second generation of Cochrans can tell their own children that grandpa was a hero. “They went through absolute hell and they get to do this ‘One Last Mission’” said Raymond Cochran, who is also grateful to the Honor Flight program. He noted his father has softened — he smiles more since their trip to Washington, D.C.
“He kept that inside him and never talked about it. I feel blessed that I can share the story with my family about a young, wide-eyed Texan kid doing a man’s job.”