Ray O'Daniels wakes at 2:45 a.m. for a 6:15 flight. He combs his white hair in the living room with a single lamp on. He pops his hearing aid in without needing to look in a mirror. • His daughter, Mary, and her friend, Sue McGinnis, walk in the front door of his two-story Valrico home, bugling a wake-up call with their hands. At 94, O'Daniels needs no wake-up — he's been up for half an hour by the time they show up. • They help O'Daniels into his decorated vest and fix the collar of his polo shirt over a bolo tie with a submarine embossed on the clasp: Pride runs deep, the etching says. • He asks Mary to put three Nutty Bars in a plastic bag. • "I don't care about their snacks," he says. "I like my own snacks." • She gives him two. He tries to put it in his breast pocket. • "Oh, don't do that!" she says. • She tells him to put on a long sleeve shirt. He says he won't get cold. • He climbs into the front seat of the Jeep. McGinnis buckles his seat belt for him without a word. • He advises McGinnis to drive down State Road 60. She takes the Crosstown. • "You know, Sis," he says to Mary as they approach Tampa International Airport. "I don't really know why I'm going back there."
The flight to Washington, D.C., with 25 World War II veterans filling the front of the plane, takes off.
It's an all-expenses-paid "honor flight," and O'Daniels is on the inaugural trip for the West Central Florida branch of the national nonprofit. With guardians and wheelchairs for each, the organization brings bay area veterans to see the National World War II Memorial, which was dedicated in 2004. A homecoming for the last of the Greatest Generation.
O'Daniels was among those who donated money for the construction of the memorial, which has pavilions for the two theaters of the war on opposite ends of the plaza and gray pillars representing the states and territories circling the memorial.
The memories of long ago are boxed up and framed now, but for military reunions O'Daniels, who attained the rank of chief petty officer before leaving the Navy, dons his bright blue World War II submarine veteran vest and thinks of his buddies left behind in the Pacific.
"Just a reminder to myself," he says, "that I lost some real good friends."
In 1941, O'Daniels was happy to spend the war in a submarine, 250 feet underwater, as a 1st class fireman. He got one terrible view out of the hatch, the sight of Pearl Harbor still burning.
But he didn't have to wade through the carnage on the ground in Europe, like the Army infantrymen. He didn't have to carry his food and bed on his back.
Everyone said submarine sailors smelled when they surfaced, but he didn't think it was too bad. They fired junky torpedoes, maybe six good ones in a stash of 24. And O'Daniels learned just one word in Japanese, the name for the Bonin Islands: Ogasawara.
Submarine patrols lasted for two months at a time. The Navy elite came up pale and ready for their rations: two quarts of hard liquor, one case of beer.
On leave in Honolulu, O'Daniels and his shipmates encountered a stifling two-beer limit. Drunk anyway, they sang from their hotel rooms. No thanks for the memories of 60 days at sea . . .
• • •
If it hadn't been for his daughter Mary, who signed him up for the honor flight, he probably wouldn't be putting the vest on today.
Shortly after take-off, when the veterans have tired of playing with their disposable cameras, winding and popping the flash, silence settles over the two-hour flight to Baltimore.
But the dull noise of the engines and the warmth of the quiet sunrise are broken suddenly.
"Hey!" someone shouts. "We got a problem here!"
O'Daniels' head slumps back, eyes rolling up and jaw falling slack. His splotchy skin is white, his arm cold as his guardian on the trip grabs it and shakes it.
Two doctors traveling with the veterans group rush from the front of the plane, pulling down a big red medical pack from the overhead compartment.
They place a stethoscope to his chest, fingers to his wrist and neck.
O'Daniels' belly rises in short, fast breaths, getting shallower by the minute.
The doctors struggle to loosen the submarine bolo tie from his neck. They break the chain clasp on his World War II vest, tugging at the buttons of his layered polo shirts to listen to his chest.
They can't find a pulse.
O'Daniels tilts his head and cracks open his eyes. "I'm fine," he whispers.
The doctors pepper him with questions about his health, only to find that he hadn't eaten breakfast. They feed him soda, juice and cookies, and O'Daniels retrieves the untouched Nutty Bars from his bag.
"I'm fine," he says over and over, apologizing for the fuss.
• • •
On the ground at the Baltimore airport, the bustle and flow of the terminal stops for these men.
Travelers applaud and cheer the World War II veterans coming off the plane, hollering and taking pictures like these wrinkly old men were the starting lineup of a pro basketball team.
In 66 years, the veterans say, they still haven't gotten used to all the attention for their actions so long ago.
"It's amazing that these people care," O'Daniels says, eyes watery. "I didn't do nothing. I didn't do anything to deserve this."
For many of them, war had gotten left behind in the Pacific, in Europe, in Africa and Australia. O'Daniels had gone home to start a family and a long career in the shipping business along Midwestern rivers.
The bombs, the fear, the enemy — that never hurt him. He could move on.
But his wife's death in 1997 almost destroyed him.
He stayed by her bedside and promised her that when she was gone, he'd be there for her at the birth of every great-grandchild.
But even his daughter didn't know if he would be able to do that. Without his Dorothy Mae, O'Daniels was lost.
He took a 30-day trip around the country after she died. He was a hazard, O'Daniels says now, because he'd get on the road and drive without knowing where he was going.
• • •
At the National World War II Memorial, O'Daniels walks haltingly with an aching left knee until he finally lets himself sit in a wheelchair.
But he won't let his guardian or the doctors tie the laces of his New Balance sneakers, leaving them tucked into the sides. He won't let them hold his arm while he walks — "Don't hang onto me," he says, pulling away. He won't let them help him stand, waving them off.
His face loses its cheeky grin, his quick mind quieted. He takes off his glasses and dabs gently at the tears with a borrowed white handkerchief.
He usually tries not to think about things he knows he can't change. He keeps his back to the gold stars on the wall, 4,000 of them for the 400,000 who died.
High school students hover by the veterans, speaking in hushed voices.
"They fought a war when they were our age," says a 17-year-old college-bound senior.
"I know," a girl answers. "It's crazy."
Everyone wants to thank this World War II veteran. Overwhelmed by gratitude that he thinks is undeserved, O'Daniels grasps each hand with two of his, holding on for one long moment. His sad eyes look up from the wheelchair.
"They were coming up and shaking my hand," O'Daniels says later, "and I was 50,000 miles away."
Thousands of miles away to 1943, out in the Pacific, when O'Daniels had moved to a new submarine, the USS Gar, following a day behind his old shipmates on the USS Grayling.
Four days later, the Grayling disappeared.
For nearly 70 years, O'Daniels has lived with this feeling. It's not guilt, he says. It's not anger. Just this:
"You survived, but they didn't."
O'Daniels stays on the tour bus while the other veterans hop around to the Lincoln, Vietnam and Korean memorials. "I'm pooped," he says. "I want to go home."
But he gets out at the Iwo Jima Memorial and lets his guardian push his wheelchair around the iconic image of Marines thrusting the American flag into the earth.
When the veterans gather to take a group photograph, O'Daniels finally cracks a big grin. He smooths away the smile with his fingers. When the camera clicks his expression is thoughtful, hand on his chin.
• • •
On the flight home, O'Daniels ribs the doctors about fainting earlier.
"I fooled you guys, didn't I?" he teases.
He's won them over. They tease him about his submarine roots, calling him a bubble head.
"Even if you didn't pass out, we'd still take care of ya," one of the doctors, Andrew D'Errico, tells him.
"I know you would," O'Daniels says.
O'Daniels is so impressed by the trip that he pledges to raise money for them. He still has contacts at shipyards, a son-in-law and nephews in the business who need to chip in.
He looks at D'Errico. "I'll miss ya."
"I'll miss you, too," D'Errico says. "Got an e-mail?"
"An e-mail address?"
"I'm too old to start on that."
• • •
O'Daniels isn't too excited about all the pomp and circumstance at home — the parade around the airport, the bagpipes, a MacDill general greeting veterans, the balloons and gifts.
"Oh my God, Sue, there was people everywhere I went," he tells McGinnis, who meets him at the airport.
"You know what, I didn't eat, you know. I got the vapors," he says. He imitates himself snoring. "Passed out!"
She looks worried. It's the third time he's done that.
Other than that, all he says about the trip is, "It was too emotional for me, Sue."
In the car, he snaps to attention at the intersection of Adamo Drive and 21st Street. "Which way are you going?" he asks.
"You know which way I'm going," she replies, turning onto the toll road.
Even though it's nearly 9 p.m., O'Daniels doesn't want to stop at the two-story Valrico house. His 13th great-grandchild was born that afternoon, three weeks early.
"I'm coming to the hospital," he tells Mary on the phone.
He has a promise to keep, and a new great-grandbaby to meet. It's a girl. Lucy Mae.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.