FARMINGTON — Three San Juan County veterans who served their country during World War II are finally going to get to see memorials in Washington, D.C., created to honor their sacrifices and those of thousands of others. One of those men will be looking for the name of his brother, who died on a Japanese prison ship.
Over three days this June, three veterans of World War II — José Florez of Bloomfield, Melvin Casteel of Aztec and Melquides "Mel" Barela of Farmington — are taking an "Honor Flight," an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington D.C.
During their stay, the veterans will visit memorials of national significance, including the National World War II Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Most of the veterans who take the trip — they are paired with "guardians," family members and friends, most often, who pay their own way — are in their 80s and 90s.
Sherri Trujillo-Hall, Honor Flight of Northern New Mexico board president, said the veterans organization is prioritizing World War II veterans to ensure as many as possible can go. Hundreds of World War II veterans die every day, Trujillo-Hall said.
"Currently that is our priority both for the national organization and the local hubs, to take as many World War II veterans as possible," she said. "They are passing away, day by day."
Honor Flight of Northern New Mexico is a national organization with two hubs in the state. American Airlines donates the chartered plane, and the crew and pilot donate their time to make the trip possible, Trujillo-Hall said. Funding for the trip is raised at an annual golf tournament in Albuquerque and from private donations, she said.
The flight this June will be the third flight for the hub, she said.
"For a lot of them this is a trip of a lifetime. It's very emotional trip for them," she said.
The veterans also receive a warm welcome home, a first for the many veterans who came back to the U.S. after the war to little or no fanfare.
Born in Gobernador, Florez, 93, was a sergeant fourth grade in the Army Air Force.
He has trouble hearing as a result of the bombing he endured in the South Pacific Theater during the war, but was glad to learn he will be able to fly with other veterans to Washington D.C. this June.
"I'm very excited because it's an opportunity to go to D.C.," Florez said. "It's an honor to be chosen to go and it was an honor to serve my country."
When Florez returned home, he said he went to Bloomfield because his mother lived there.
"It was a one (gas) station, one (traffic) signal town then," Florez said.
Florez said he needed work and took a job at a copper mine near Miami, Ariz. He returned to San Juan County in the 1950s to take a construction job with El Paso Natural Gas Company. He retired 30 years later from the company as a plant mechanic.
Melquides "Mel" Barela
Barela, 91, grew up in the Las Cruces area but has lived in Farmington for decades.
Barela was a private first class in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division during World War II. In the Battle of the Bulge, Barela was wounded in both legs near the ankles when he was hit by shrapnel from mortar fire. While stumbling along a road to a field hospital 10 miles away, Barela said he was helped by a general who drove him, personally, in a jeep.
He was eventually flown to Paris to a hospital where doctors told him he would lose both legs. But Barela appealed to them and they patched him up, which meant working through a painful 6-month recovery. He later was sent back to Belgium where he said he soon learned the war was over.
He returned to New Mexico and worked for 30 years in locations around the state as a surveyor for the Bureau of Reclamation before retiring.
Barela learned during the war that his brother, Herman Barela, had been killed while being held as a prisoner of the Japanese. American forces sank the vessel carrying his brother because the Japanese didn't mark it as a prisoner ship, he said.
"Maybe I can find his name at the memorial in D.C.," he said.
Barela said the war and his brother have never left his thoughts and dreams at night. He said that therapy he received at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque helped him open up about those experiences. For most of his life, he said, he has been unable to talk about his service.
"I was silent all the time," Barela said. "But after I got the therapy, I could feel free. But I still think of Herman all the time."
Casteel, 90, says he also is looking forward to the trip.
Casteel, a technician fourth grade serving in the Army's 82nd Airborne Signal Company during the war, said his experience as a switchboard operator at night in Allied-occupied Berlin at age 19 isn't painful to recall. But adjusting to military discipline after growing up on a 500-acre wheat farm in Garfield County, Okla., wasn't easy.
"The biggest adjustment was not being able to do what I damn well pleased," Casteel said. "Growing up on a farm, we had chores and work we done but we didn’t have to ask somebody when you go to bed or what time you get up. You were free."
He was awarded the Bronze Star, good conduct medal and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign medal, among other citations and awards for his 21 months of service.
When he returned home, Casteel eventually found work in Farmington with the El Paso Natural Gas Company, a job he held for 26 years.
Casteel said he has long wanted to travel to see the national memorial.
"I had wanted to take that trip for years," he said. "I thought, well, maybe I’ll be lucky enough to go. I just really would like to see the World War II monument."
A mason, Casteel said he would also like to visit the Masonic temple while he is there.
Brenda Forrest, AMVETS second state vice and transportation coordinator of the Farmington unit of the Disabled American Veterans, helped Casteel complete the paperwork and get approved for the flight.
Forrest is driving him from his Aztec home to Albuquerque on May 31 for his flight, she said.
"I know how badly he wants to go," Forrest said. "He just wants to see it. He's never been there and to see the memorial, I know it means a lot to him."
Forrest, who volunteers her time on behalf of veterans in San Juan County, said it is an overdue priority to give veterans, especially those who are now in their 90s, the opportunity to see memorials commemorating the sacrifice and service of the "greatest generation."
"Mel is a WW II veteran. There's not that many left," she said. "He wants to see the memorial that's there for him and his fellow military. I just feel that he deserves that honor. It's about time."
James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.