Donald Holdaway had one of the best days of his life Oct. 13, when he took an Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., to see the World War II memorial.
He was the last veteran to leave the airport at the end of a long day, was too excited to sleep much that night, and talked about the trip for the next week.
Eight days after the trip, Holdaway had a massive stroke at home. Two days later, he was gone.
“They gave him a day of dreams,” said his oldest child, Nora McLaughlin.
At his wake, the family displayed a large poster of photos of the Oct. 13 trip. In many of them, he is beaming.
The 25 local World War II veterans who took the flight, the last of Honor Flight’s three this year, were applauded, thanked and saluted at every stop. They also were able to see the magnificent, sprawling marble memorial to their World War II sacrifices.
The push to get World War II veterans to Washington to see their memorial is urgent – the youngest are in their 80s, and around 900 die every day.
There was no reason to think the hale and hearty Don Holdaway, 89, would be one of them.
Born in Tonawanda, he served in the Army Air Forces and was assigned to the motor pool at a base in Rishra, near Calcutta, part of the Burma-India-China theater.
One day, driving his Jeep on the base, Holdaway nearly bumped into a gorgeous, dark-haired 18-year-old named Dorothea Coelho, who worked as a secretary to the adjutant general.
“He jumped out of the Jeep and said, ‘Are you OK? Are you OK?’ ” recalled Dorothea.
After a ride home following work that day and a few more visits “to make sure I was all right,” she said, the two began going to canteen dances. Finally, Holdaway proposed.
“We had to apply to the U.S. government for permission to marry, and as soon as we got it, we had four days to accomplish this wedding,” Mrs. Holdaway recalled.
They married in St. Thomas’s Church in Calcutta in January 1946. In April, already pregnant with their oldest child, Dorothea became one of 32 war brides and 13 Red Cross workers lodged in women’s quarters on the troop ship Marine Cardinal, which also carried 1,000 men.
They landed in San Francisco, where they boarded a train that arrived at Buffalo’s Central Terminal in the middle of the night. Holdaway was discharged in May 1946, and they bought a house in the City of Tonawanda.
He worked for Batt Oil Co. and Chevrolet, then started as a pipefitter at Durez, working his way up to maintenance supervisor and a spot on the hazardous materials team.
Nora was born in December 1946, the first of seven girls and three boys.
Family life was interrupted when Holdaway served with the Air Force in Seoul during the Korean War from 1951 to 1953.
On the Honor Flight visit in October, Holdaway and Nora’s husband, Richard McLaughlin, paused at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, gazing at the 19 larger-than-life stainless steel statues.
“My old buddies,” Holdaway said. “It was so cold, you couldn’t even drive a stake into the ground.”
“I think the Korean War was harder,” Holdaway said. “I was across one hill, and my brother was on the other, and I never knew it.”
Holdaway was also called back into service from the Air Force Reserves in 1962 for a year during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His third set of discharge papers, dated 1963, are his last.
He retired from Durez after heart surgery in 1983, but he kept busy. At the time of his death, he was a 65-year member and past president of Niagara Hose Company No. 3 and was active at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.
“He was there, always helping,” said Nora McLaughlin: setting up for bingo, painting, ushering, even installing a new boiler and fire alarm system. He also made tables, benches and lecterns, and he worked there three days a week.
A nephew kept suggesting to Nora McLaughlin that she sign her dad up for Honor Flight until she finally filled out the online application. The national group takes veterans for free to see their memorial. Each is accompanied by a guardian, who pays $375.
But Holdaway was hesitant, Dorothea said.
“He was nervous because he wouldn’t know anybody. But I said, ‘Why don’t you ask Dick?’ And then he was in his joy, because that’s his buddy.”
“He called and said, ‘Do you think Richard will go as my guardian?’ ” said Nora McLaughlin. “I said, ‘Of course he will!’ He said, ‘I’ll pay for it!’ but we said no.”
Holdaway turned down a seat on a spring flight.
“He was afraid it would be too cold,” his wife said.
But the Honor Flight board members promised to call him again for the October flight. This time, he said yes.
“He was so excited that morning, but he slept through his alarm,” Nora McLaughlin said. “He said, ‘Do I have time for a bowl of cereal before I go?’ We said yes, so he wolfed that down” and then the family left for the airport.
After the group arrived at the Baltimore airport, where they were greeted with hugs, handshakes and applause, Richard McLaughlin texted his wife, “Baltimore was great!”
The day only got better. The buses parked close to the destinations. Every veteran who needed a wheelchair or a helping hand got one. Breakfast, lunch, candy and water were passed out, bathrooms were pointed out, and everywhere, veterans were thanked.
“My husband said over and over again that he was so privileged to have shared that day with my dad,” said Nora McLaughlin.
Upon their arrival home, the men were greeted by hundreds of cheering, applauding people. A dozen members of the Holdaway family met Don. McLaughlin’s daughter, Christine, with small American flags stuck in her pigtails, burst from the crowd to hug her grandfather. His great-grandson, Jacob, hugged Holdaway tightly.
After the final ceremony, the crowd began to break up.
“He was the last veteran to leave,” said Honor Flight Buffalo President Lisa Wylie. “He came up to me and said it had been one of the best days of his life.”
Eight days after the trip, Don Holdaway went to take a nap. When Dorothea went to wake him a few hours later, she found him on the floor. Richard McLaughlin rushed over; they called 911, and Holdaway was taken to the hospital. Family members stayed with him until he stopped breathing Oct. 23.
At Holdaway’s wake, his loved ones shook their heads in amazement at the timing of his last great adventure.
“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime, and it’s a chance for them to understand that their efforts are truly appreciated,” said Nora McLaughlin. “Take that opportunity. Don’t think you can’t do it. You can!”
Honor Flight Buffalo has transported 265 World War II veterans to Washington since its first flight in 2010. There are 48 World War II veterans, 21 Korean War veterans and six Vietnam veterans on a waiting list. Generally, due to their age, World War II veterans are given priority.
To volunteer, donate, apply for a veteran’s trip or to be a guardian, go to honorflightbuffalo.org.