U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Melvin Rector was in his 20s when he helped defend Britain 70 years ago during World War II.
This month, at age 94, Rector decided to leave his home in Barefoot Bay, Florida, to visit the region that he hadn't visited in seven decades.
Through a program conducted by the National World War II Museum in New Orleans that helps people visit war sites, Rector signed up to visit the Royal Air Force station Snetterton Heath, in Norfolk, England.
It was there that he served with the 96th Bomb Group in 1945 as a radio operator and gunner on B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, flying eight combat missions over Germany during the spring of the war’s final year, The Washington Post reported. During many of the missions, his plane took hard hits from dozens of bullets.
Rector was excited to visit the site once again.
“He planned it for like, the last six months,” Darlene O’Donnell, Rector’s stepdaughter, told Floriday Today. “He couldn’t wait to go.”
On May 6, while on the Europe-bound plane flight, the plane's pilot invited Rector to the cockpit, where the two took a photo together.
“The flight attendant stopped us and said, ‘Mr. Rector, the captain would like to meet you,'” Susan Jowers told Florida Today.
Jowers, a woman who The Washington Post reported had become "almost a daughter" to Rector, had served as his guardian during a 2011 Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C. She accompanied him on the trip to England.
After touching down, the first site the group visited was RAF Uxbridge, a former Royal Air Force station in the London borough of Hillingdon.
Rector toured Battle of Britain Bunker, an underground command center where fighter airplane operations were directed during D-Day.
Right after the tour, he told Jowers he felt dizzy.
“He walked out of that bunker like his tour was done,” Jowers said.
Then Rector died peacefully.
“He couldn’t have asked for a better way to go,” Rector's daughter, Sandy Vavruich, told Florida Today. “It was quick and painless. He had just gotten to see two planes, and he passed away between them.”
Rector never got to visit RAF Snetterton Heath.
Before repatriating his remains to the United States, a small service was planned for Rector in Britain -- but the service was anything but small.
“They just wanted something very simple. And when I found a little bit of background out about Melvin, there was no way we were going to just give him a very simple service,” Neil Sherry, the British funeral director in charge of Rector’s service, told ITV London News. “I wanted it to be as special as possible.”
The U.S. Embassy donated a flag to drape over Rector's coffin, and servicemen and women and British historians attended the service to pay their respects to Rector.
“Representation from the Royal Air Force and the British Army I saw here was phenomenal,” U.S. Army Maj. Leif Purcell told ITV London News. “I was expecting just to see myself and maybe two or three other U.S. service members and a priest, and that was it. So it was very delightful to see.”
“I do know of his sacrifice and his family’s sacrifice, so you do him and his family a great honor by being here today," one U.S. serviceman said at the May 18 funeral.
“He certainly got a beautiful send-off,” Jowers told Florida Today. “People everywhere, from Cambridge to London, heard his story. He completed his final mission."
Rector is survived by six children. His family will pay their respects and celebrate his life June 9 at First Baptist Church in Barefoot Bay.
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