Three World War II veterans returned home to Sandy on Sept. 20 after experiencing the trip of a lifetime. Alex Roybal, Bill Dunn and Mark Chatfield are Navy brothers who met while living together at the Atria Senior Living Center in Sandy.
Through a program called Utah’s Honor Flight, these three servicemen had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. and visit, among other things, the World War II memorial erected almost 10 years ago in honor of the armed forces who served during that war. Their trip was paid for entirely through donations made to the Honor Flight program.
Roybal, Dunn and Chatfield didn’t travel alone. A total of 66 veterans ranging from age 87 to 98 made the trip, and each soldier was accompanied by a guardian of their choosing. Chatfield’s daughter, Diane Holbrook, 65, and Dunn’s daughter, Debbie Black, 62, both took time out of their busy lives to travel with their fathers to D.C. Cissy Heaton, 56, Roybal’s daughter, actually travelled from Florida to make the trip with her father.
Mark Chatfield (left), 87, enlisted in the U.S. Navy when he was 17 and served for a total of six years. Bill Dunn (center), 88, enlisted in the U.S. Navy when he was 18 and served for two and a half years. Alex Roybal (right), 89, enlisted in the U.S. Navy when he was 17 and served for a little over three years. He also served in the U.S. Air Force for 18 years.
Roybal was a seaman first class in the Navy, and he served in the Pacific Ocean theater of war. Chatfield was a third-class storekeeper on the U.S.S. Lexington, and he also served in the Pacific.
Dunn was a storekeeper technical third class, and he served in Guam.
Chatfield, 87, enlisted in the Navy in 1943 when he was just 17. He was deployed for a total of six years. His first three-year-long trip was during WWII, and he was released in 1947 for a short time. During his time away from the Navy, Chatfield hitchhiked around the country with no destination in mind. Then he was called back in 1950 for another three-year-long tour during the Korean War.
Dunn is 88, but he enlisted when he was 18. He served in the Navy for two and a half years. After he got out, he decided to go to college at the University of Utah on the G.I. Bill.
“Well, back then, it was either enlist or be drafted. But we were also eager to fight the Japanese,” Dunn said of his reason for enlisting.
Roybal, 89, also enlisted when he was 17. He spent “three years, 10 months and 17 days,” in the Navy, but the Navy wasn’t his first choice. He originally wanted to serve in the Air Force, but his father, who also served for about 23 years in the Army, thought that the Navy would be safer for his son. After World War II, Roybal joined the Air Force as he had wanted, and he served for another 18 years.
During his many years of service, Roybal also fought in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He retired with a total of 22 years and some months of military service.
Roybal went on to become a top sergeant in the Air Force, so after he retired from duty, he received a special commendation medal for his dedication to serving his country.
“It was the case that our country had been invaded, and we thought—being youngsters—that we would do something about it,” he said. “Both Mark and I entered the Navy in the state of Texas and Bill in the state of Utah.”
All three Sandy veterans agreed that having their daughters with them was one of the best things of the entire trip. For some of them, it allowed them to open up and share, for the first time ever, some of their wartime memories with their daughters.
“There was no other way to do it; it was absolutely wonderful. Now, we had somebody to talk to about it,” Chatfield said. “I, for one, didn’t talk much about my wartime experiences to my children growing up, so they didn’t know too much about it. Everything was pretty much new to her.”
Some of these memories were happy and some harrowing, but sharing them allowed each veteran to connect with his daughter in ways they hadn’t before.
“Yeah, it’s interesting to talk to most people because most of the veterans did not talk about their war experiences to their families because they sort of wanted to forget them,” Dunn said.
Out of the three, Roybal’s daughter Cissy knew the most about her father’s service time.
“In my case, my kids always asked me about my Navy time,” Roybal said.
Cissy even knew about some of his darkest memories.
“The worst thing that happened was that a couple of times we had to bury people at sea,” Roybal said. “That was the worst: having to bury buddies in the ocean.”
Family, friends and community leaders gathered at the Utah Air National Guard hangar to celebrate their sendoff. Then, the Patriot Guard Riders, a band of motorcyclists set on showing respect for soldiers, escorted the buses full of the veterans to the Salt Lake City International Airport.
On their flight from Salt Lake City to Washington, D.C., the veterans received another special surprise. The Honor Flight staff had contacted their loved ones back in July and had them write letters to the veterans. Each received a stack of letters full of love and gratitude.
“We had tears,” Dunn said.
“Two of the ladies that were on the staff passed boxes of Kleenex up and down the aisles for us old goats,” said Roybal. “It was very, very touching for us.”
When their chartered flight landed in D.C., all 66 veterans were greeted with handshakes and cheers from a crowd of volunteers and local people in the airport. In fact, throughout the entire trip, many people, most complete strangers, stopped to thank them and shake their hands—including young children.
“I reacted, ‘Wow!’ I just couldn’t believe that there was that many people who cared about an old man like me and what I did 70 years ago,” Chatfield said.
“I think that explains it for all of us,” Dunn agreed.
In addition to seeing the WWII Memorial, the veterans spent their two-day trip visiting the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and other historical sites.
When they returned home, a crowd of their loved ones turned up to greet them. Their plane into the Salt Lake City airport was met with a Water Cannon Salute, which is a traditional ceremony used to honor certain flights. The Salt Lake City Fire Department stationed firefighters in the airport to soak the plane with the truck’s water cannon.
“My favorite part was the homecoming,” Chatfield said. “That was absolutely spectacular and unexpected. I looked out the window just as the water cannon shot . . . I saw it, and that was a big deal for me. Nobody gets that kind of attention.”
Being a soldier is engrained in every one of these men. Their time spent in service to their country will not be forgotten, and this trip was the perfect way for them to reflect.
“I’ve been to Washington, D.C. many times, but this was the most inspiring, enjoyable, patriotic time I’ve ever spent,” Dunn said.
“And I second that exactly,” Chatfield said.
“Same,” Roybal said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Although being successful soldiers is important to them, Roybal, Chatfield and Dunn all agreed that being a great family man is even more important.
“The nicest thing about my family is that I feel like I can go knowing that they have been successful with their work, their integrity and their life,” Dunn said.
Roybal and his wife Vera have been married for 69 years. He is the only one of the three Sandy veterans to have a wife who is still living. Chatfield’s wife Grace passed away about eight years ago; they were married for 58 years. Dunn’s wife Norma passed away about two years ago; they were married for 64 years.
As a group, these veterans have a total of 13 children, 23 grandchildren, 43 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandkid.
“Being a great-grandfather is the best. You don’t have any of the work to do and you can just spoil them,” Chatfield said.