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3 WWII vets fly on historic airplane out of Easton Airport

EASTON — Three local World War II veterans took swooping flights through the skies of the Mid-Shore on Aug. 26 in a historic 1942 Boeing Stearman biplane, participating in a national program honoring the retired soldiers in celebration of the 76th anniversary of the surrender of Japan on Sept. 2.

Gene Mechling, who served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during WWII, boarded the front of the two-person, white, blue and yellow biplane at Easton Airport in the early morning hours. He flew for roughly 15 minutes around Easton and St. Michaels, watching rolling green fields and the blue waters of the Tred Avon and Miles River underneath him.

“Beautiful day and I really enjoyed it,” said Mechling. “I always wanted to fly in a (Boeing Stearman) and I didn’t get a chance to during World War II.”

The flight program, Operation September Freedom, is run by the nonprofit and volunteer-based organization Dream Flights, which was founded in 2011 to give these special flights to military veterans and seniors for free.

But Operation September Freedom is a unique, first-time program: from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30, Dream Flights will only fly WWII veterans.

The organization estimates that of the 16 million American veterans who served during the world’s largest conflict, only 100,000 are still alive, and the youngest of them are now 95 years old. Since the population is aging, the organization wanted to give them special attention this year, said James Sims, a pilot with Dream Flights.

Sims added that the 1942 Stearman flying out of Easton Airport was in operation with the Air Force in WWII before being donated to his organization.

“We see it as living history, and we get to basically use it as a catalyst for conversation with veterans all over the country,” Sims said. “It is the most rewarding opportunity I have ever been given.”

Dream Flights is flying six restored Boeing Stearmans almost daily across the country, with 324 flights already flown to date in more than 300 U.S. cities.

The three local veterans out of Easton were treated to the flight by the leadership team at their retirement community, Londonderry on the Tred Avon, off Port Street.

Irma Toce, the chief executive officer at Londonderry, saw an article about Operation September Freedom that piqued her interest. She watched videos about the flights and knew she had to get her residents up in the air.

“I said, ‘That would be so awesome,’ and then I ran it by our activities coordinator,” she said. “We reached out to Dream Flights, and they were willing to do it.”

Londonderry has seven WWII veterans, out of 187 total residents, in the retirement community. The youngest of them is 97. Three of the veterans — Mechling, Calvin Sanders and Howard Zwemer — were ecstatic to hit the skies once again when Toce asked them if they were interested.

“One of them said to me, ‘I will take any chance I get to go on a flight,’’’ Toce said. “To me, it’s honoring our veterans. And it’s probably going to be their last flight, ever.”

Dream Flights says it costs them roughly $400 per flight, but the nonprofit does not charge veterans, their families or retirement communities a cent. It does encourage donations. Toce said Londonderry would donate to the organization because the flights went exactly as advertised.

“I’m amazed — it’s really, really impressive,” she said.

Mechling, Sanders and Zwemer were joined by family and friends at Easton Airport. Participants and family members were treated to donuts and popcorn while they waited their turn under a shaded tent canopy.

Sims, the pilot, awarded each veteran a special hat reserved specifically for WWII veterans, and then led them to the tail of the plane, where they signed their name with a sharpie.

Sims said those three flights would be joined by four more in Maryland. A total of 25 to 30 veterans were flown on Aug. 26 in the state. The pilot encourages any veteran or someone who knows a veteran to sign up for a flight on dreamflights.org, adding that they want every interested veteran to get a chance.

“As long as they show up to the airport, we’re going to fly them,” Sims added. “We can honor them with Operation September Freedom.”

Sanders, who enlisted in 1942 at 18 years old to join the U.S. Army Air Corps — and flew over 35 missions during the war — said he would fly again next year, if given the chance.

And Mechling would really like another go, too.

“I’d like to be in control” next time, Mechling said, laughing.

State board approves mask mandate for Maryland schools

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland State Board of Education approved an emergency measure Thursday requiring masks in schools for the new school year.

The board approved the statewide mask mask for students, teachers and staff at public schools. The measure goes to a Maryland General Assembly joint committee for final approval and implementation.

Most of Maryland’s local school districts have already approved mask mandates citing worries about the Delta variant of the coronavirus. That includes school systems in Queen Anne’s, Caroline, Kent and Talbot counties.

There were five local districts statewide that were not requiring students and staff to wear masks for the upcoming school year. Four of those — Dorchester, Cecil, Somerset and Worcester — are on the Eastern Shore. Carroll County is the fifth school district without a local mask order.

Susan Getty, a board member, said about half of the state’s students are not even eligible for a vaccine at this time because of their age, according to the Associated Press. People 12 and over are eligible to be vaccinated. Getty said mandating mask-wearing is an additional strategy to protect students, especially against the highly contagious delta variant.

“The CDC, as of today, has designated all counties in Maryland as high- or substantially-high risk. No one is in the low category,” Getty said. “Because of this and the 80,000 cases of COVID already with children under age 19, I fully support this mask mandate at this time.”

Advocates for mask orders welcomed the state education’s approval of a statewide requirement.

“A majority of the Maryland Senate called on the State Board of Education to promulgate emergency regulations to institute a statewide masking policy for schools and we applaud them for doing so this afternoon, said Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore. “The Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive, and Legislative Review (AELR) will work expeditiously to approve this emergency regulation..”

The state teachers union also welcomed the statewide mask order.

“Thank you to (the Maryland State Board of Education) for showing statewide leadership by passing emergency regulations for a mask mandate in schools. This helps us open our doors in a more healthy and safe manner for students, educators, and communities.,”said Cheryl Bost, president of Maryland State Education Association.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has not ordered or forbid localities and local school districts from imposing or not imposing mask requirements. School districts in Arizona, Florida and Texas have been battling GOP governors over mask and other COVID mandates.

Hogan lifted the state’s COVID mask order earlier in May when cases and hospitalizations were down.

The local mask mandates have prompted battles at school boards in Maryland and across the country — as well as protests. Parents opposed to new mask mandates have protested in Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties.

Dan Cox, a Republican state lawmaker running for governor in 2022, criticized the state school board decision. “This is a disturbing ruling. The Board of Education has zero constitutional powers of emergency or medical device powers,” Cox said.

On the other side of the aisle, Democratic candidate for governor Tom Perez voiced support for the mask order. He also wants COVID vaccines mandated for teachers and employees.

“This is an important step forward in the fight against this virus, but the governor has to do more. We need to keep our kids and educators safe — and we need to keep them learning face-to-face. That’s why, in addition to this mask mandate, we need Governor Hogan to mandate vaccinations or regular testing for all school employees statewide, and show leadership by calling for supplemental paid family sick leave for our vaccinated front line education workers,” Perez said.

There have been upswings in COVID cases, deaths and hospitalizations with concerns about the Delta variant in hotspots such as Florida and Texas.

The Maryland Department of Health reported 1,244 new COVID cases on Thursday and 720 current hospitalizations attributed to the virus. Those are from pandemic lows earlier this summer but still off peak levels seen in January, according to MDH.

Locally, there are 42 active COVID cases in Talbot County and 13 new daily cases on Thursday, Aug. 26.

Still, hospitals in Florida, Texas, Louisiana and other current hotspots report shortages of available beds for patients and some staffing shortages as the virus spikes again and some medical systems require COVID vaccines among workers.

3 things

1 Famous birthdays: Bluegrass singer-musician J.D. Crowe is 84. Actor Tuesday Weld is 78. Actor Paul Reubens is 69. Rock musician Glen Matlock (The Sex Pistols) is 65. Golfer Bernhard Langer is 64. Rap musician Bobo (Cypress Hill) is 54. U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines is 52. Actor Sarah Chalke (pictured) is 45.Actor Aaron Paul is 42. Rock musician Jon Siebels (Eve 6) is 42. Contemporary Christian musician Megan Garrett (Casting Crowns) is 41. Actor Karla Mosley is 40. Actor Amanda Fuller is 37.

2 On this day, in 1949, a violent white mob prevented an outdoor concert headlined by Paul Robeson from taking place near Peekskill, New York. (The concert was held eight days later.) In 1967, Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles, was found dead in his London flat from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills; he was 32. In 2008, One year ago: Speaking on the White House South Lawn, President Donald Trump accepted his party’s renomination, blasting Joe Biden as a hapless career politician who would endanger Americans’ safety and painting a grim portrait of violence in American cities run by Democrats. (More history on A4)

3 The U.S. government said Thursday it is shutting down the federal jail in New York City after a slew of problems that came to light following disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein’s death there two years ago. The federal Bureau of Prisons said the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan will be closed at least temporarily to address issues that have long plagued the facility, including lax security and crumbling infrastructure. The facility has held inmates such as Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and Mafia boss John Gotti. Accused Epstein associated Ghislaine Maxwell is also being held in a New York federal jail. (Story on A11)

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Terror attack kills 13 U.S. troops, Afghans in Kabul as chaotic exit turns deadly

KABUL — Thirteen U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan Thursday, Aug. 26, during attacks at the Kabul airport.

Twelve U.S. Marines and a Navy medic along with Afghan civilians were killed in the attacks outside the airport where Americans are frantically evacuating U.S. citizens and Afghans.

Suicide bombers and gunman targeted crowds outside the airport where the Biden administration and U.S. military are racing evacuations before an Aug. 31 deadline imposed by the Taliban.

The 12 American deaths are the first fatalities among U.S. troops since Feb. 2020. There have been more than 2,400 American soldiers killed in the Afghanistan War and more then 241,000 total deaths during the 20-year war and occupation originally aimed at Osama bin Laden after 9/11.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, continues to voice concerns about President Joe Biden’s handling of the U.S. withdrawal from the 20-year war zone and reliance on the Taliban and others for security during the chaotic evacuations.

“We are devastated and outraged by the murder of American service members and all who lost their lives in today’s horrific violence,” Hogan said. “This administration’s decisions have put the lives of thousands of Americans at the mercy of terrorists. We cannot continue to rely on their goodwill. The President pledged to get every American out of Afghanistan. I urge him to stay true to his word. We must not leave any Americans behind and risk that they suffer the same fate.”

U.S. forces are working with the Taliban (their former foes) on security in Kabul and could ask the Afghan rulers to extends security zones around the American-controlled airport.

The Pentagon blames Islamic State (ISIS) fighters for the attacks. On Aug. 20, Biden promised swift U.S. retaliations if there were attacks during the American retreat.

Other Republicans are also critical of Biden’s handling of the chaotic U.S. exit.

“The Biden Administration never planned for the obvious, imminent takeover of Kabul by the Taliban. Now, thousands of Americans are in danger in Afghanistan,” said U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.

Democrats also voiced concerns about the situation on the ground in Afghan capital after the deadly attacks and worries about more violence.

“I’m committed to making sure our military and State Department have the resources needed to carry out this vital evacuation mission,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.

Biden has sent 6,000 troops to Afghanistan to help evacuate U.S. citizens, Afghans who worked for the Pentagon and other American agencies and other at-risk Afghans.

“My heart aches to know that after today’s suicide bombings in Kabul, American and Afghan families are about to receive the worst news imaginable. Let us all stop for a moment and pray for those who have fallen today serving our nation and trying to help make possible a safe evacuation from Afghanistan. Let us also keep in our prayers the many Afghans desperate for a new future whose lives have been cut short. I’m grateful for the bravery of those who continue to work tirelessly to evacuate the remaining Americans and our Afghan partners,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Thursday the situation on the ground in Kabul needs to be brought under control after the deadly attacks at the airport.

“We must work to establish stability on the ground & remain focused on securing the safety of US citizens, our troops, and our Afghan partners. Today’s loss of life is gut-wrenching & my thoughts are with those impacted by these acts of terror,” Van Hollen said.

Biden promised to go after those responsible for the attack and to continue evacuations until the Aug. 31 set by the Taliban on the U.S. and its military.

“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” said Biden during comments at the White House Thursday.

The U.S. is focused on going after a group called ISIS K — an effort that could challenged in Afghanistan by Pentagon and CIA agreements with the Taliban and the fact the Pentagon is withdrawing from the war zone.

Biden said there are some Americans in Afghanistan who don’t want to leave the country after the U.S.-backed government quickly fell to the Taliban after the closing of air bases and stoppage of air support from the Pentagon.

Biden defended his handling of the U.S. retreat from the war saying he followed military recommendations to close American air bases before the evacuations that are now centered at the chaotic Kabul airport. He continued to focus on his decision to end the war over the exit. “It was time to end the 20-year war,” Biden said.

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Sarah Chalke arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of "Roseanne" on Friday, March 23, 2018 in Burbank, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)