Ralph Merrill, 95, of Paris was one of 45 veterans participating in Honor Flight Maine’s recent two-day trip to Washington, D.C. Merrill served in the U.S. Air Force as a parachute rigger from 1942-45. (Matthew Daigle/Sun Journal)
PARIS — More than 70 years after he served in the Air Force during World War II, Ralph Merrill of Paris had the opportunity to see the memorials and monuments to people he served with.
Merrill was one of 45 veterans invited by the nonprofit organization Honor Flight Maine to fly to Washington, D.C., for two days to visit the memorials free of charge.
Merrill, who has never seen any of Washington, D.C.’s memorials or monuments, said he was happy he decided to make the trip, and that it was “worth it.”
Merrill was drafted into the military in 1942 at the age of 20 and served as an Air Force parachute rigger until 1945.
“Not many people hear of ‘parachute rigger,’” Merrill said. “I wasn’t a jumper. We were overseas, and every 30 days, the parachutes had to be opened up, repaired, dried, and put back together. It was maintenance. We also did repairs to the flight uniforms and parts of the plane.”
He said many of the people who lived on his street in Paris in 1942 were drafted at the same time.
“There was quite an exodus of people from the street during those years,” Merrill said.
Ernie Gay, Merrill’s son-in-law, said, “All of them were expected to go. The world was on fire. I think they’re the generation that saved the world. If it wasn’t for them, we’d be under Hitler’s regime.”
Merrill said he spent much of his time with the Air Force in India, where he had to acclimate to living out of a tent, dealing with monkeys and snakes, and learning how to understand people speaking a different language.
“I had never been outside of Paris before,” Merrill said. “All of a sudden, I’m on a ship heading to India.”
After contracting an illness, Merrill returned home in 1945 and his job at Widen-Lord Tanning Co.
He was later hired at a local oil company, where he worked for 37 years before retiring in 1992 at the age of 70.
Merrill said he first heard about Honor Flight Maine a few years ago, after Onni Raasumaa, past president of the Floyd Harlow Jr. VFW Post in Paris, recommended that he sign up for it.
“I kept saying ‘no’ to him,” Merrill said. “I told him that there are a lot more people who deserved it more than I did. I said that fighting troops should have a chance to go.”
However, with the number of World War II veterans dwindling every year, Merrill said he realized there were fewer and fewer World War II veterans left to participate.
“It seems there aren’t as many of us as there used to be,” Merrill said. “Eventually, I was convinced to go, and I’m awful glad I did.”
Merrill and Gay, who served as his father-in-law’s escort, flew to Baltimore with 45 other veterans – some of them who served in World War II and Korea, and others who served in Vietnam.
From Baltimore, Gay said, a motorcycle escort led the veterans on a one-hour drive to the nation’s capital.
“There were people everywhere you went,” Merrill said. “When I got here, I thought, ‘Who would ever expect this?’ People who I didn’t even know were coming up to me and thanking me for my service.”
While in D.C., Merrill and other veterans had an opportunity to see many of the country’s monuments and memorials, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, something that Merrill said he had always wanted to see.
Merrill urged other veterans to participate in Honor Flight Maine.
“Go, go go!” he said. “They can’t do enough for you. They take care of any problems.”
Merrill’s daughter, Jill Gay, said veterans “shouldn’t hesitate to go.”
“I’m sure they’re afraid to if they’re not well, but they have nothing to worry about,” she said.
Merrill and the other veterans returned to the airport in Portland on Oct. 27 and were greeted by hundreds of residents, including members of the state’s Coast Guard and the Boy Scouts of America.
“They had a red carpet all lined up for the veterans,” Ernie Gay said. “All kinds of people were there, and all of them would shake the veterans’ hands over and over, thanking them.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” Merrill said. “Veterans need to go to this while they can.”