Dressed in a military-issue shirt adorned with pins, medals and the World War II cap he wears everywhere, Joseph Remi Bouchard plucked a framed black-and-white photo off his living room wall — a flight crew posing in front of a B-24.
He is one of two in the photo still alive.
Bouchard, 86, enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1944 at 18, and was discharged at 21 in 1947 as a staff sergeant. He earned a Good Conduct medal as well as the air medal he received after flying seven combat missions in Europe during the end of World War II.
Bouchard then worked as a civilian at Brunswick Naval Air Station for 33 years where he also retired, inspecting moving companies from Bangor to Portsmouth, N.H. The job required a lot of driving; in 17 years, he went through eight work-issued vehicles.
Yet in all his travels, he never had been to Washington, D.C.
That changed after the Bouchards visited their daughter in Florida recently.
At the airport, a man who was working to restore an old B-24 asked Bouchard if he was a veteran, and told him about the Honor Flight program, which flies veterans to Washington to see war memorials.
Bouchard took the chance and applied in March. He found out in August he’d been selected for an Oct. 14 flight.
Veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts qualify, with priority to WWII and terminally ill veterans.
Every veteran is required to have a guardian on their trip. Dan Bouchard, the eldest of Joseph Bouchard’s children, accompanied his father to Washington.
The World War II Memorial, which opened to the public in 2004, honors 16 million Americans who served in the Armed Forces and the more than 400,000 who died.
“It’s an amazing memorial,” Dan Bouchard said, “and the fact that it’s in the middle and no matter where you are, when you’re in the WWII [memorial], you can look in the other directions and see the other memorials.”
“I was flabbergasted,” said Joseph Bouchard, who lives with wife, Theresa, in Bowdoin, where they raised their children.
He was also struck by the Air Force Memorial, with its three 300-foot stainless steel spires stretching into the sky.
Strangers would ask to have their picture taken with him while there.
And that wasn’t the only thrill. Arriving in Baltimore, there was a receiving line of local military cadets there to greet the veterans, along with huge crowds.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” Dan Bouchard said. “There was just so much gratitude being offered by complete strangers, cadets. It was a humbling experience just to be with the vets to see this.”
Veterans then got on a bus with a 60-motorcycle escort down a six-lane highway.
There were many surprises along the way, such as a mail call where veterans got letters written by family members and cards made by school children.
Joseph Bouchard took those letters home. Theresa Bouchard said her husband reads them, over and over.
The one-day Honor Flight trips are scheduled once a month except July and August.
The New England group came together in 2009, Dan Bouchard said, founded by Joe Byron, a retired police officer who found there was no group in New England and volunteered to start one.
Sitting in his father’s living room recently, Dan Bouchard told his father, “Dad, you never really talk too much about the war and what you did. When we grew up as kids, you never really did.
“It wasn’t until the past couple of years, all of a sudden it’s like you’re just coming out. You found this hat, you’re wearing it all the time, and everybody’s shaking your hand …”
Wearing the World War II cap this day, too, “I bet I’ve shaken a thousand hands,” his father said.
His three brothers were all in the service. The Honor Flight experience has allowed Joseph Bouchard’s family to learn more about his years of service.
“I was happy I joined the service in the first place,” Joseph Bouchard said. He was a gunner on a B-24 and “we had seven missions in combat and we nearly lost ourselves because we got hit in an engine.”
They were forced to land in England on the closest aircraft carrier because they were losing altitude, where it turns out Jimmy Stewart was the commanding officer, a lieutenant colonel, Bouchard said.
He never met him, but said “I wish I had.”
As a waist gunner, he was in the middle of the plane on the right side “and I had my machine gun and on my machine gun was a camera so when I fired at a German fighter, if I hit it, it would record it in the camera,” Bouchard said.
During one mission, the plane got hit with shrapnel. He was wearing a heated suit for high altitude and was hit in the neck, but the suit’s collar absorbed the brunt of the shrapnel.
After enlisting, the test given to new members qualified him for radio mechanics. “I don’t know why,” he said. He flunked two subsequent tests on purpose because he didn’t want to be on the ground and went on to learn to be a gunner with a flight crew.
He wanted to fly, and he did.
Honor Flight New England is a nonprofit organization created to honor America’s veterans with donor-supported transportation to Washington, D.C., for veterans to visit their memorials.
For more information, visit www.HonorFlightNewEngland.org or call 603-518-5368 or toll free at 877-992-8387. To donate, checks can be made payable to Honor Flight New England and mailed to P.O. Box 16287, Hooksett, N.H., 03106.