Michiana World War II veteran takes trip of a lifetime

They were part of the greatest generation, and they are passing quickly.

World War II veterans were born in an era of American prosperity, but by the time they were coming of age another war was underway.

Now, they are dying at a rate of 555 a day.

When you get a chance to meet one of these great heroes and share their stories, you take it.

Last week, I was able to sit down with a member of the greatest generation, South Bend's Don "Bucko" Hawkins who on Monday, for his 87th birthday, is taking the trip of a lifetime.

Mary Kleinfehn and her siblings grew up hearing dad's stories of his time in the Navy.

Like many of the greatest generation, he left high school at 17 to sign up to serve in the Second World War.

Don, or Bucko as his family affectionately calls him, was on a ship in the South Pacific called LST- 951. LST stands for "landing ship tank."

“The tanks and the doors open and it the doors went down and we could go in it and pull right in,” Don explains.

He shared these memories with us, along with his daughter, granddaughter and great granddaughter, because on his 87th birthday, Don is taking the trip of a lifetime, made possible by Brookdale, which owns the assisted living facility he now calls home.

Brookdale has a foundation that provides wishes to senior citizens.

His daughter says Sterling House had residents fill out a wish list at Christmastime, and his wish was granted.

“We said we'd like to take him to Washington, D.C. to see the World War II Memorial,” she explains.

On Monday, her sister and Bucko left Sterling House for a drive to Indianapolis, on their way to Washington, D.C.

She explains, “We arrive in Washington at six o'clock on Monday and they have a dinner at 7, and that is dad's 87th birthday.”

Tuesday is jam packed for the birthday boy too.

She adds, “They have us going to the Korean and Vietnam War Memorials, then to the World War II Memorial for the afternoon and then to Arlington.”

Don's ship was the first to pull into Tokyo Harbor the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima

After being asked if he was ever afraid, Don responds, "No I wasn't. We had a good ship and a good crew.”

Now, he, along with six other veterans and their families, is looking forward to seeing the memorial erected in their honor.

Don says, “I am excited about it, but I didn't want them to go to all that.”

His daughter thinks it is a fitting way to celebrate his 87th birthday.

She says, “When we'd go to bed at night, we'd say ‘tell us a story about the Navy,’ and so it just kind of seems like something you should see, the memorial for World War II because you were a part of it.”

Don adds, “I consider myself lucky.”

He is lucky and surrounded by three generations as he embarks on a trip honoring the greatest generation.

They will do all their touring on Tuesday and have a big celebration dinner before returning to South Bend on Wednesday.

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