September 22, 2013
The morning dawned to a perfect pilot’s sky, “blue and a million.” The Air Force vans for the families arrived at the hotel with our liaison officers; we boarded the vans and off we went to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. We had all provided ID to the Air Force liaison officers ahead of time and with them as our escorts, we were all escorted through TSA without a lot of hassle. The caskets were being flown on Delta Airlines and DAL graciously opened their VIP lounge to us while we awaited the plane’s arrival. As we were escorted down onto the tarmac, we saw the news cameras lined up and then the two gray funeral home’s hearses arrived, backed into place next to the arrival gate and opened their rear doors as we saw the plane land and taxi to gate # 21. The caskets arrived at 11:02 a.m. on Delta Airlines flight # 938 from Atlanta. The aircraft was a MD-88 (McDonald Douglas). I thought “how fitting” when I saw the MC-88 since Jim and Howard were flying a Douglas A-26 on their last mission.
As the ground crew opened the front lower compartment, two beautiful female Air Force Officers, a blonde and a brunette, walked up and stood at attention and I knew they were the Air Force escorts for Jim and Howard all the way from Hawaii to Washington, DC.
The Air Force mortuary detail Airmen marched up and Major Sizemore’s flag draped casket appeared in the door of the cargo hold - the 8 Air Force mortuary detail Airmen marched up to their positions on each side of the ramp and the casket came out of the plane. Everyone on the ramp stood at attention in total silence with their hands over their hearts, or the veterans and military personnel saluting, until Major Sizemore’s casket was in the hearse and the doors closed. As I looked back toward the plane, a movement in the 4th window caught my eye and I saw a small wreath being held up in the window – a passenger paying their respects. I had been standing right next to the open door of the hearse that Howard’s casket was loaded into and had stepped back to the side out of the shadows as the 8 Air Force mortuary detail Airmen turned and marched back to the ramp as Major Andre’s casket appeared and again the honor and dignity of loading the casket into the hearse was repeated. As the hearses pulled away, I was standing next to Jim’s two teenage grandsons Patrick and Gabriel Sizemore and the boys both hugged me. As we started back to the terminal, a gray-haired lady I had not yet been introduced to came up, hugged me and then took my hand and held it as we walked along together back to the terminal. What she then quietly said astounded me: “I saw you move back into the sunlight and your hair glow around your head like a halo. I looked into your face and saw love and kindness and I knew you were sent as our angel.” I was speechless, which for me is a miracle, but if that’s what she needed to soothe her heart I wasn’t going to dissuade her.
Visitation 7:00 p.m.
I was to meet the families at the Mortuary at 6:30 p.m. since I drove my own car. I arrived before anyone else and had a few minutes alone with Jim and Howard before the others arrived. Their flag draped caskets were at the front of the chapel together. I walked up and said a private prayer for each one, then bent down and touched their caskets with the hydraulic connector off the A-26 # 679 they had both flown in pilot training years ago.
The families arrived and as they came in, most of them hugged me. Looks like the “angel” story made the rounds, so now I know my role here - hand holding, hugging and a shoulder to cry on.
There were many stories being told about Jim and Howard by their family and friends, some with laughter and some with tears. The two Air Force officers escorting Jim and Howard from Hawaii were there and we got the opportunity to talk with them. The blonde who escorted Jim is a Lt. Colonel, Command Pilot and is parachute qualified. The brunette who escorted Howard is a Major, Forensic Anthropologist, also parachute qualified and had been at the excavation of the crash site in Laos. Both of these lovely ladies expressed what an honor it was for them to be the escorts for Jim and Howard and bring them home.