Ben Tankle had never visited the memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C,. that commemorates his service and the sacrifices of his fellow servicemen during World War II – that is, not until April 21, when Honor Flight New England, part of a national non-profit that seeks to honor veterans and, perhaps, provide them some closure, flew him to Washington to visit the WWII memorial and those memorializing the men and women who fought and served in Korea and Vietnam.
Since its inception in 2007, the program has escorted more than 200,000 veterans to the US capital and the memorial sites.
In an interview with the Reporter, the 89-year-old Tankle described the experience as unforgettable. “It all left me speechless,” he said.
Tankle was a 17-and-a-half year-old US Army private when his boots touched down in Japan months after the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had ended the war. Despite his age, the Army saw in him valuable leadership traits, likely owing to his experience working in construction and other odd jobs in the West End, where Tankle was raised.
“I looked young,” he said, “but in the West End, you grew up pretty quick.”
Tankle was tapped to be a construction foreman in the 42nd Engineer Construction Battalion, a position that saw him oversee the rebuilding and reinforcing of homes, dams, and other infrastructure projects in Korea for a stretch of fifteen months in 1946 and 1947. He recalls that after their traumatic encounters with occupying Japanese soldiers during the war, the Koreans were at first frightened by American troops.
“They were scared stiff that we were like the Japanese soldiers,” he said. But after a while, he added, most of them came around. “I found those people to be kind and helpful. They appreciated that we were there.”
Tankle’s time in Korea was characterized by hard work and bitter cold, which he described as worse than a typical Boston winter. But in the end, he said, he doesn’t regret a thing. “It was the best thing I could have done.”
He excelled in his leadership role, and was honorably discharged from the army with a ranking of TEC 4, or Technician Fourth Grade, a category roughly equivalent to a sergeant.
Tankle says he was emotional during his tour of the D.C. memorials 70 years after his service overseas. “All those names and all those people gone...the memorials were beautifully done,” he said. “The Korean War one is fantastic,” he added, noting how realistically it depicts soldiers wading through rice paddies.
As a whole, Tankle was overwhelmed by the treatment he received from the Honor Flight network, which is staffed by a large corps of volunteers. The trip features a police and fire escort, along with a host of other tributes that Tankle preferred not to reveal for fear of “spoiling the surprise” for other veteran honorees. “I couldn’t believe it; I thought, ‘They’re going all out for me,’” he said.
“I’ll die with this in my memory,” he added.
Tankle’s thank you is the goal that drives Honor Flight, an organization whose work is in a way a race against time (they prioritize the most elderly and terminally ill veterans for their programs). For most of the servicemen Tankle served alongside, it’s too late for the experience.
“I was the youngest in the battalion, so most of them are all dead,” he said. “We’re all dying off quickly. But I remember their names, and I visualize everything I went through.”
Tankle says he doesn’t worry too much about the near future.
“I’m in great health,” said the Port Norfolk resident. “I think I’m gonna go for another ten years!”