BENNINGTON -- Air Force veteran Wilfred "Willy" Rondeau is honored to be taking a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., in May, but he wants the public to know one thing: "Our women left their kitchens and their kids to work in the factories in World War II so we could get the material to do our jobs," he said Thursday. "And I have a lot of respect for them, the ones that are still alive. Most of them were older than I am."
Rondeau, who will be 89 on Thursday, will take an Honor Flight to the memorial on May 3, a few days prior to the first anniversary of his wife, Jeanette's, passing. "I figure she's looking down on me," he said.
The Honor Flight program (www.starsandstripeshonorflight.org) works to get World War II veterans to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. The memorial opened to the public in 2004, when many veterans were well into their elder years.
Rondeau resides at the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington. Paul Yerke, a staff member at the home and a Navy veteran, completed the paperwork necessary to get Rondeau on the Honor Flight.
Rondeau volunteered to be drafted when he was 18, having failed to be let into the Army and Marine Corps at 17. He chose the Air Force, which he said was attached to the Army at the time. He knew his future wife Jeanette when he joined up, but they were not dating at that point.
"She worked at Sprague Electric for 45 years," said Rondeau. "She worked during the war years and it was no picnic for her to work. Hot wax and hot solder, and that stuff will stick to your hand, you can't get it off until it cools off."
He was 21 when he left the service and married Jeanette. Rondeau said he lived in Stamford for many years as a logger while his wife worked at Sprague, which was in North Adams, Mass. He worked there briefly, but did not enjoy having a boss so he went into business for himself in the woods.
During the war, he served in the Air Transport Command (ATC) as a truck driver. He would drive air crews between their P-38 fighter planes and the mess hall. Rondeau said he served in the Pacific Theater at Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands.
Rondeau recalled meeting many interesting people in his truck, including Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright, who was Allied Commander in the Philippines for a time before he surrendered to the Japanese at Corregidor and was captured. Rondeau met him after he was released.
"A very nice gentleman. He got in the front seat of my truck, I drove him to the mess hall. I didn't really know he was an officer, but I figured who he was. I didn't dare come out and say, ‘Well, who are you?'"
He said Wainwright told him to drive where the enlisted men were eating, for he wished to dine with them instead of the officers. He had a reputation for being a "fighting general," and was respected by those under his command.
Rondeau met with many freed prisoners. "They didn't have no picnic; bunch of kids, nurses."
After living many years in Stamford -- he was raised in North Adams, Mass. -- Rondeau spent nine years in Readsboro. "I lost my wife in May, and I ended up on Father's Day, I rolled my car over and broke my neck, so from the hospital they shipped me in here for rehab," he said.
He said he enjoys the Vermont Veterans Home and hopes Yerke will accompany him to Washington, D.C.
"I'm very, very proud of it, because it's an honor to be invited to something like that. Because how many World War II people we got left?"
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.