Coy Pfaff’s graceful 1943 PBY Catalina has been flying for at least the past three days from Honolulu airport to Kaneohe Bay, taking military, VIPs and media out to demonstrate the unique capabilities of the flying boat in conjunction with the upcoming 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.
But he won’t get to fly as special guests any of the 46 World War II veterans who were expected to travel to Hawaii with a like number of guardians for the Sept. 2 ceremony on the fantail of the battleship Missouri.
Difficult decisions related to COVID-19 keep removing chunks of the 75th observance from the roster.
Organizers of the event on Friday revealed an extra painful one; they said they had made the “extremely difficult decision” to limit attendance at the Sept. 2 ceremony to World War II veterans who live in Hawaii.
The change of plans was made “in consideration of the current COVID-19 situation in Hawaii, and to help assure the health and safety of the veterans of our Greatest Generation,” the 75th World War II Commemoration Committee in Hawaii said in a release.
It’s been frustrating for some of the pilots and warbird owners who came a long way and with great difficulty to honor those veterans with flights and a series of group flyovers commemorating Japan’s surrender on the Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.
“That was the primary reason we came out here — for them,” said Pfaff, a Marine Corps veteran who heads up the Soaring by the Sea Foundation set up for the historic PBY out of Eugene, Ore.
“If we had the time and they were healthy enough to fly with us — we would take every one that we could,” Pfaff said Sunday following an afternoon flight.
More than 14 wartime veterans who live in Hawaii are still expected to attend the ceremony, officials said.
Pfaff said that “when we return to San Diego and on the way up to Oregon, we’re going to try to get as many of them as we can to fly out and meet us there — and we’ll take them for a free flight.”
Jerry Pedersen, who was on the Missouri when the Japanese surrendered, was planning to come from Sacramento for the commemoration — despite rising coronavirus in Hawaii.
“No, I’m not concerned particularly,” the 95-year-old said. “If we would do in life everything the way we’ve been told to handle this pandemic, we’d come through it pretty good.”
He added, “I’ve been told what I need to do in order to be responsible for myself but also toward others. I can’t hug the people that I’d like to hug.”
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Darryll Wong, the 75th committee’s co-chairman, said “some of these (veterans), they knew the risk to come in,” but in the end, cancelling the visits was a combined decision of the state, Defense Department and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the committee with “the safety of the people here in Hawaii (in mind) as well as the people coming into Hawaii.”
Fellow co-chair retired Navy Capt. Steve Colon said the decision with the aged vets was made as a result of a number of factors.
“It’s the health risk. What happens if they get sick?” he said. “What happens if one of them gets sick here and we already have the limited medical capability that we have now because of the surge. So how do we care for them? What happens if there’s a spread because of a cluster?”
He added it was a “joint Indo-Pacom-governor decision.”
The long-range Catalina patrol bombers had a big wartime role in the vastness of the Pacific. More than 50 were damaged or destroyed on Ford Island and at Kaneohe Bay by attacking Japanese planes on Dec. 7, 1941.
Aviation historian Dave Trojan said the last PBY in Hawaii was used by the University of Hawaii from 1981 to 1988.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.