Until earlier this month, Army Air Corps veteran Melvin Rector had always regretted not having returned to the place where he served during World War II.
This year, the 94-year-old Barefoot Bay, Florida, man who served as a radio operator on B-17 Flying Fortress bombers decided to return to a country he last saw in 1945: England.
It was such a milestone that the pilot of his American Airlines flight to England invited Rector to the cockpit and snapped pictures with the veteran.
"The flight attendant stopped us and said, 'Mr. Rector, the captain would like to meet you,'" said Susan Jowers, who accompanied Rector on the trip.
On May 6 he arrived in London for a tour of World War II sights and the places he had served 71 years earlier.
Melvin Rector with an American Airlines flight captain on his way to London in May 2016.
Photo Credit: Provided
Rector was scheduled to visit his former base RAF Snetterton Heath in Norfolk, but started the tour at the Battle of Britain Bunker in the Uxbridge area of London that first day.
"He walked out of that bunker like his tour was done," said Jowers, 60, who first met Rector when she served as his guardian during a 2011 Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C. She said she became like a daughter to Rector after that.
As he walked out, Rector told Jowers that he felt dizzy. Jowers took hold of one of Rector's arms while a stranger grasped the other.
Rector died quietly there just outside the bunker.
Jowers said she expected three or four people for the simple funeral service in London.
That was until others found out about it.
"They just wanted something simple, and when I found out a little background about Melvin, there is just no way that we were just going to give him a simple service," funeral director Neil Sherry told British ITV Network, which aired a news piece about Rector's funeral service. "We wanted it to be as special as possible."
Though no one knew him, the Royal Air Force, U.S. Air Force and historians in London attended and participated in the funeral with military honors.
"He certainly got a beautiful send-off," Jowers said. "People everywhere, from Cambridge to London heard his story."
U.S. Army Maj. Leif Purcell told ITV he thought he and a few other U.S. military personnel would be the only ones to attend the funeral, but was surprised.
"The representation from the Royal Air Force and the British Army that I saw here was phenomenal," he said.
Melvin Rector shortly after arriving for a tour of World War II sites in England.
Photo Credit: Provided
Rector's daughter, Sandy Vavruich, who lives in Gloversville, New York, said she was touched that so many people cared and showed up for her father's funeral in England.
"You go to a foreign country and they have the love and honor a veteran," she said. "It was so nice that he had those to participate in his service."
Vavruich said her father was in a peaceful place doing what he had set out to do.
"He couldn't have asked for a better way to go," she said. "It was quick and painless. He had just gotten to see two planes and he passed away between them."
Rector served with the 96th Bomb Group during the war, flying bombing missions over Europe. He served in the military from 1943 to 1951 and attained the rank of master sergeant. He last served in 1945 in England.
"He planned it for like the last six months," said Darlene O'Donnell, Rector's stepdaughter who lives across the street from Rector's Barefoot Bay home. "He couldn't wait to go."
O'Donnell said Rector volunteered with Honor Flight, helped out at his church and did other volunteer work.
In 2011, he was taken on an Honor Flight, which takes World War II veterans on all-expense paid trips to Washington, D.C., to reflect at the monuments in their honor. He was paired with Jowers as his guardian for the trip. Her father also served in the Army Air Corps but died when she was very young.
"Since then we became like father and daughter," said Jowers, who has an interest in World War II history. "There was just something about Melvin. We had a connection."
A funeral service for Rector, a father of six, is set for 11 a.m. June 9 at First Baptist Church of Barefoot Bay.
Jowers said his remains were being repatriated Tuesday.
"He completed his final mission," she said.