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'Treated like kings'

It had been a while since Harold Simpson had seen the Enola Gay — more than 70 years.

The first time Simpson set eyes on her, she was a little-known B-29, alluring, formidable, and the talk of the Guam airfield where Simpson was a Navy SeaBee. Enola Gay's date with destiny above Japan still lay a few days ahead.

Last weekend, Simpson saw the old girl once again, even more polished than when they last crossed paths on the strategic Pacific Island. The 92-year-old Medford resident was part of a contingent of World War II and Korean War veterans comprising what may be the final trip to the nation's capital by the Honor Flight of Oregon.

It was a time of reflection for Simpson and his fellow servicemen, and an opportunity for succeeding generations to say thanks. After a whirlwind weekend visit to Washington, D.C., the Honor Flight returned to Medford Monday afternoon, greeted by columns of American flags posted by fellow veterans, and an emotional welcome from family, civic leaders and the community.

"It was awesome, amazing and fabulous," Simpson said. "I never thought anything would be this great. Everywhere we went from Portland to D.C., hundreds of passengers welcomed us, and I had a lot of women kiss me; which is unusual for me, but it's fine."

Simpson has vivid memories of visiting the Washington Monument while in boot camp, fresh out of North High School in Des Moines, Iowa. But until now he hadn't returned to the District of Columbia, where the Honor Flight visited the World War II Memorial — just east of the Vietnam Memorial Wall and Korean War Memorial.

"It was amazing to go to all those memorials and know that all those people died and served that we could be free today," Simpson said. "That was so amazing to me."

He paused a few extra moments in the Pacific Theater location where Guam is recognized.

"I made a lot friends when I was in that theater and on Guam," Simpson said. "I'm not sure where any of them are today, because I've lost contact. It's amazing to think back, and how God brought me all through that to today. It's just miraculous as far as I'm concerned."

Simpson took a course in aviation mechanics hoping to get into the Army Air Corp, predecessor of the Air Force, but a heart murmur grounded those ambitions. The Navy, however, found him suitable, and sent him to Virginia for training before he was shipped across the Pacific.

No amusement park ride could rival the 28-day, stomach-churning voyage shared with 5,000 troops.

"I had never been on the ocean," he recalled. "That ship hit every storm in the Pacific, and I thought wherever we're going, we're not going to make it. I think everybody was sick on the boat, but me."

Arriving at Guam, the Americans climbed down rope ladders to get into smaller boats to go ashore. They were told the boat would be back with provisions, but the boat didn't return for another day. Meanwhile, the Marines, who had just captured the island, were still rounding up stray Japanese soldiers.

"We didn't know how safe it was," admitted Simpson, who went to work with his fellow Seabees constructing platforms and Quonset huts. "A lot of us were young. I was just 18. We didn't get much information. We were just there to do our job and hoped it was going to be over soon."

After a few months, the Seabees were given a radio, and that inevitably meant listening to Tokyo Rose.

"We use to hear her on there and she would say, 'Don't you boys want to go home?' " said Simpson, a petty officer 3rd Class. "I can still hear her voice. Of course, they picked someone with a nice, pleasant voice to give us that message of encouragement. And then they'd play American music."

The airfield at Guam was a jump-off point for flights throughout the theater, including the island of Tinian, where the Boeing Superfortress took off for Japan with an atomic bomb.

"Our camp was right beside the airfield," Simpson said. "This big plane came in one day, and we said, 'What is that?' It was a B-29, and a couple days later, they bombed Hiroshima. When I saw it in the museum, it looked much bigger. It is really big, we had never seen any B-29s to that point."

After he was discharged from the Navy, Simpson married Mary, his wife of 67 years, before she died in 2014. Together they were missionaries in Canada, and later he pastored churches in the Midwest before retiring to the Rogue Valley in 2002.

Simpson's daughter, Mary Prim, accompanied him to Washington.

"The guys were treated like kings," Prim said. "Airports full of people were talking to them, waving, saluting and clapping. They were saying, 'This is for us?' They just had a ball. In the bus they were like teenagers, all rowdy and telling war stories and having fun."

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

Harold Simpson of Medford describes his WWII military experience after returning Monday from an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]
Honor Flight veterans arrived to a large celebration Monday in Medford. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]