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La Jolla World War II veteran Max Gurney has a ‘meaningful’ Honor Flight

La Jollan Max Gurney talks about his recent Honor Flight experience at the Torrey Pines Rotary Club meeting Nov. 10.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Though he’s had a lifetime of travels in the military and as a 45-year employee of Pan Am, La Jolla centenarian Max Gurney recently returned from a trip unlike any other: an Honor Flight.

During an Honor Flight, military veterans are flown to Baltimore and treated to a dinner and a tour of the various war memorials in and around Washington, D.C. During Gurney’s excursion Oct. 1-3, the 94 participating veterans visited the World War II Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Air Force Memorial, Marine Corps War Memorial and National Museum of the Navy.

Whether it’s his because of service with the military or the Rotary Club, advice for international travel or sharing a good glass of Burgundy wine, La Jollan Max Gurney is a good man to know.

Gurney discussed the experience during a Torrey Pines Rotary Club meeting Nov. 10.

“I was impressed with the memorials that I hadn’t seen for 20 years. I have only words of commendation for those involved,” he said.

But the most “meaningful” part of the trip, he said, was actually the return home, when 800 to 1,000 people gathered at San Diego International Airport to greet the veterans once they landed.

“The impression that will stay with me from the Honor Flight … was the ovation on arrival. To me, it was a reflection of the real America,” he said.

Honor Flight public relations director Holly Shaffner said the elaborate reception when the veterans return serves as “the homecoming they didn’t get when they returned from war.”

Max Gurney (front) returns from an Honor Flight on Oct. 3.
(Courtesy of Lizzy Simas)

She said last month’s trip was “the biggest one yet” because the three previously scheduled had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our youngest veteran was 84 and our oldest was 104, and we had seven over 100 years old,” Shaffner said. “We’re glad we can provide them the opportunity to see the memorials that commemorate their service and sacrifice.”

Gurney joined the Army after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when he was 20. Already a multilinguist, he was trained in cryptographic and intelligence operations and the Signal Intelligence Service and was stationed in North Africa.

During his years in the military, Gurney traveled to Tunisia, Italy and more. He received his honorable discharge from the Army in November 1945.

While overseas, he served with Gen. George Patton.

“Gen. Patton was the man to be feared from the enemy standpoint,” Gurney told the Rotarians. “As a leader, he provided consistency, strategy and decision. He was not very popular in the U.S. Army at that time, but he got things done.” Under Patton’s leadership, Gurney’s platoon completed Germany’s defeat in Tunisia.

“It was a long battle, and my unit was always up front,” he said.

After an injury, Gurney was tended to in northern Italy at a makeshift hospital in a building once owned by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Gurney said he stayed in Mussolini’s former bedroom, but “I didn’t become a fascist,” he joked.

Gurney said his wartime experience was more than “the battling and the suffering” in that “I was so taken by the spirit of camaraderie.”

He said he is glad to “live in peace times. We all live in peace times, even if it only feels like a few days. Remember, it has been a long trail from the wars and the serious episodes and difficulties with battles fought everywhere.”

In addition to his military service, Gurney was an employee of Pan Am, working as everything from a baggage clerk to a regional executive. He also is recognized as a commander in the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a wine society dedicated to Burgundy wine.

He joined Torrey Pines Rotary in 1992 and helped establish it as the “wine club.” Gurney was honored as Rotarian of the Year in 2009 and still attends meetings.

Learn more about the Honor Flight at honorflightsandiego.org.