|Conrad Lebourdais, 89, of Topsham describes watching American planes fill the sky in Tokyo Bay after Japan surrendered to the United States, ending World War II.|
BRUNSWICK, Maine — Almost exactly 70 years ago, 19-year-old Conrad Lebourdais watched from a Navy ship anchored in Tokyo Bay as U.S. jets flew over the USS Missouri after Japan surrendered to the United States, ending World War II.
“We couldn’t see anyone on the ship,” Lebourdais, 89, said Friday. “Then, after the ceremony, we heard an awful big roar. Everybody was saying, ‘What’s that? What’s that?’ And somebody hollered, ‘Look!’ All over — they were coming from all over … 1,000 planes they flew over the bay meaning to say, ‘If you didn’t sign, we were going to drop all the bombs right there.’”
But when the Navy Blue Angels aeronautics team performs at the Great State of Maine Air Show early next month — just across the Androscoggin River from Lebourdais’ Topsham home — the World War II veteran won’t be watching from the former Navy base. He’s boycotting the air show, he said Friday, because veterans will be required to pay the full admission price: $25 in advance or $30 at the gate.
Lebourdais said he was rebuffed when he called the show’s organizers to ask ticket prices be waived for veterans. When the Navy hosted past airshows, admission was free because the base was a military facility supported by public dollars. Since the Navy’s departure in 2011, airshows at the former base have charged admission, with some of the proceeds paying costs to put on the show and other money being donated to local charitable and community organizations.
But asking veterans to pay does not sit well with Lebourdais.
“I don’t see why World War II veterans — the greatest generation — [have to pay.] If it wasn’t for us, Tojo and Hitler would be landing down there at the base now.”
Lebourdais, who needed his father’s signature to join the Navy at age 17, traveled around the world as an amphibious landing craft operator aboard the USS Medea. Immediately after the war ended, the USS Medea delivered food and other supplies to Japanese civilians in communities devastated by atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Those humanitarian efforts exposed Lebourdais to a new risk.
A letter to Lebourdais from the U.S. Strategic Command Center for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction documents that he was in the Hiroshima area aboard the USS Medea from Oct. 6 to Oct. 11, 1945, and was exposed to radiation.
“We weren’t supposed to be there more than a couple of hours because of the radiation — but they didn’t tell us,” Lebourdais said Friday, recalling his wartime experience while sitting in his home. “I got home and [years later] found a pimple on my arm …”
Pointing to a scar on his right upper arm, he said, “[The doctor] said, ‘Conrad, you’ve got a bad tumor in there.’”
Two surgeries later, the cancer was gone — but Lebourdais said he battled Veterans Affairs for more than half a century before he received full benefits from serving in the military and being exposed to radiation during that service.
Lebourdais supplements his income these days artistically customizing Louisville Slugger bats that he sells for $20. He presented Gov. Paul LePage’s wife, Ann, with a bat earlier this month at an American Legion event in Brunswick. Two bats would more than pay for his admission to the air show — but Lebourdais said he won’t attend on principle.
On Thursday, The Times Record published a letter to the editor from Lebourdais:
“Next month the [former] Naval air station will have the fly-in of the Blue Angels. I am a World War II veteran, Navy. I have asked them to let the World War II veterans in for free. No, sir — it’s going to cost an arm and two legs to get in. I ask all World War II veterans to boycott. Let’s all stick together like in World War II. These guys are going to fill their pockets. It used to be free years ago. Let’s stick together — all veterans — and don’t go.”
Lebourdais said he’s received several calls of support, and has contacted the office of U.S. Sen. Angus King — who lives in Brunswick — to see if he will step in.
William “Chick” Cicciotti of Topsham, an advocate for veterans and American Legion liaison to state government, agrees with Lebourdais.
“I think it’s ridiculous to charge that much money to get into that,” he said by phone Friday. “The government — I hope — isn’t charging for the Blue Angels — that’s a freebie. These seniors are on fixed incomes. They’re not going to go to that.”
Cicciotti, who also serves as legislative chairman of the Midcoast Veterans Council, said Friday he was not speaking on behalf of the organizations he represents but as a citizen and a military veteran.
“A World War II guy … and he wants to go to that? That’s a lot of his Social Security money,” Cicciotti said.
A spokesman for King’s office said Friday when Lebourdais contacted the senator’s office, the office conveyed his concerns to Steve Levesque, executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, which is redeveloping the former base.
On Friday, Levesque referred calls to the Air Show Network, a company hired to run the Great State of Maine Air Show.
A message left Friday afternoon for Jim Breen, president of the Air Show Network, was not returned.