As Operation Welcome Home volunteers have gathered at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport over the years to celebrate the return of U.S. troops, those troops have often seen World War II and Korean War veteran Earl Daff in the crowd. On October 18, it was Daff who humbly watched as a crowd gathered for him outside the Severna Park home of his daughter, this time in celebration of his 95th birthday.
Daff has volunteered with Operation Welcome Home since 2016.
“It is emotional because when the troops come through and see his World War II and Korean War hat, they thank him for his service,” said one of Daff’s two daughters, Brenda January. “And the best part might be the kids who come up to him. It’s really genuine.”
Daff was a corporal at the time he left military service. He was stationed near Frankfurt, Germany, in World War II, and he was in the Army Reserves from 1948 to 1951, and the 101st Airborne Division in the Korean War.
One of six brothers, Daff learned one day that his older brother, Harold, was shot in the leg during World War II in Italy, so Daff got his parents’ permission to drop out of high school and enlist.
Following World War II, from June 1946 to September 1948, he cleared the airfields of burned and shot German planes, and he worked on the Berlin Airlift by loading food and water on U.S. planes for the German population.
“The Russians wouldn’t give them bread, wouldn’t give them water, wouldn’t give them gasoline,” Daff recalled.
Daff returned home, got married to Bess Ward, and the couple stayed happily married for 64 years until her death in 2016.
As a member of the Army Reserves, Daff was recalled to active duty, shipping out from San Francisco to North Korea in 1950 after North Korean communist forces invaded South Korea. There, he worked with the 212th Railroad Battalion and the 831st Engineer Aviation Battalion, helping to transport ammunition to the front lines.
“It was 40 below zero in some places in Korea,” Daff said. “A lot of people got frostbite and lost their toes.”
All five of Daff’s brothers returned from their deployment safely. Daff earned the World War II Victory Medal, Army of Occupation Medal and Korean Service Medal.
After his military career ended, Daff moved to Glen Burnie with his family and worked for trucking companies, later relocating to West Virginia and back to Anne Arundel County.
His military service is widely respected by the troops he has met over the years, and in October 2020, it was his turn to be recognized.
For Daff’s surprise, birthday cards came from all over the country, including from the Washington Metro Area Navy Nurse Corps Association, the Virginia chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution, Operation Welcome Home Maryland, and countless others.
They aspired to have 94 birthday cards for Daff but received more than 135 from all over the country, along with dozens of challenge coins.
The parade was well-attended by Daff’s family and others including Operation Welcome Home team leaders and volunteers, Mission BBQ (which gives Daff free meals), Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Company, Truckin 4 Troops founder Scott Mallary and Chief Warrant Officer Jay Velev-Balay from the Coast Guard.
Kathy Thorp, founder of Operation Welcome Home Maryland, organized the event with January’s help. It was gratifying to honor a veteran who has spent so much of his time recognizing the service of others, Thorp said.
“Often, the troops will stop as they are greeting the crowd that is cheering them on, and give him a coin or a patch, definitely a handshake,” Thorp said, recalling Operation Welcome Home events at BWI Airport. “The most touching moment is when we all start in with the pledge of allegiance. It takes him a minute, but he stands out of his wheelchair, and proudly joins in with the pledge, with his right hand on his heart. Not a dry eye can be seen in the crowd.”