AINsight: A Day to Remember

 - October 17, 2019, 10:42 AM
Group photo of veterans at Lincoln Memorial
Hudson Valley Honor Flight Mission #24 carried 83 veterans from World War II through the Vietnam War to Washington, D.C. on October 12. For some it was their first, and likely last opportunity to see the memorials dedicated to their service and sacrifice. (Photo: Curt Epstein)

They are called the Greatest Generation, the soldiers, pilots, and sailors who fought and won World War II, and there are fewer of them every day. After the National World War II Memorial opened on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial in 2004, Earl Morse, a retired Air Force captain and physician assistant who worked in a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Springfield, Ohio, realized that many of his WWII patients would not be able to travel to D.C. to visit it.

A private pilot, Morse offered to fly with two veterans to Washington, and in January 2005, he pitched the idea to fellow private pilots at his local Air Force aero club. That May, after forming a charitable organization and raising funds, six small airplanes each carried two WWII veterans to D.C. in what became the first Honor Flight. By the end of the year, that number had swelled to 126 veterans transported on a mixture of small aircraft and commercial flights.

A similar organization struck up the idea of ramping up the scale of the project and chartering whole commercial airliners to carry the veterans and their escorts; the two merged in 2007 to form the Honor Flight Network. By 2017, a total of 130 regional hubs existed across the U.S., and they had transported more than 200,000 WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans on expense-paid trips to view their memorials.

On October 12, I had the proud task of serving as my 94-year-old WWII-veteran uncle’s escort/guardian on the Hudson Valley (N.Y.) Honor Flight’s 24th mission. It was not a mere spur of the moment whim. An application needed to be filled out, indicating if he would be traveling with a friend or family member (who would be required to pay their own way). Those without their own guardian would be assigned one from a group of volunteers. A phone interview was conducted with the organizers. I had to attend a mandatory two-hour safety briefing several weeks before the event.

With the ages of veterans extending into the upper 90s, every aspect of the day was examined, from where to position yourself when the veterans boarded the tour buses (walking behind them in case they stumbled or fell) to the location of virtually every restroom on the itinerary. We were told the 83 veterans and their escorts would be assigned to five bus groups for when we reached Washington, each with its own organizer, safety officer, and a volunteer nurse or EMT. This mission was unique for the Hudson Valley chapter as it included Vietnam War vets for the first time, some who had been waiting years for the opportunity.

The day itself was a long one. To reach the gathering area at an Orange County, N.Y. supermarket parking lot at 5:45 a.m., my uncle had to get up at 3:30 a.m., and we headed out into the darkness at 4:30 a.m., arriving at the destination at 5:30. There we each checked in at our respective tables and received an identification lanyard and T-shirt, blue for the veterans, gray for the guardians. The supermarket chain Shop Rite is a major sponsor of the program and had a breakfast spread and coffee waiting.

We boarded a line of buses and at 6:30, and the convoy departed for the half-hour ride to Stewart International Airport, escorted by approximately 250 motorcyclists who braved the pre-dawn darkness to show their respect. Along the way, we passed illuminated highway signs thanking the veterans, fire trucks hoisting giant American flags from their extended ladders, and local law enforcement members who stood by their vehicles and saluted.

On arrival at Stewart, saluting junior Air Force ROTC members from a local high school formed a line leading us to the airport terminal, where several hundred people waited to greet the veterans and see them off. After a brief ceremony, we boarded the chartered American Airlines jet for the quick flight to Washington. The A321’s cabin was festooned with American flags, and the flight crew noted their pride at having the veterans on board.

At Washington Reagan National Airport, the sounds of a band and applause rang down the gateway, as we emerged to a terminal filled with cheering people. Members of the crowd shook hands with each veteran as they appeared and headed down the concourse to the bus loading area.

The cargo hold of the aircraft was filled with wheelchairs, which needed to be transported from the ramp to the upstairs streetside exit where they were swiftly stowed under the buses in a well-practiced drill. While many of the veterans were still quite ambulatory, we were warned at the safety briefing that it would be a long day, covering a lot of territory among the four stops and that the veterans would appreciate being wheeled at times during the day. The organization also made sure no one lacked for food, with boxed breakfasts and lunches provided onboard the buses.

Four Stops

With a U.S. Park Police escort closing off traffic as we merged onto highways, we quickly reached our first stop, the National World War II Memorial. Wearing his World War II Veteran ball cap, my uncle was continually approached by people thanking him for his service, shaking his hand, patting his shoulder, or even hugging him. The most poignant was a middle-aged blond man who approached, and in an accented voice said “I am Dutch. Thank you for freeing my people and saving my country.” Since my uncle served in the European Theater during the war he was touched by that sentiment. On the monument, there is a wall of remembrance consisting of more than 4,000 gold stars, each representing 100 U.S. servicemen who lost their lives in the war.

The next stop was the Lincoln Memorial for a group photo, before dispersing to the nearby Korean War and Vietnam War Memorials. There were at least three other Honor Flight chapters visiting D.C. while we were there, each wearing its own specific colored T-shirts and identification badges showing which war they served in. The Honor Flights are typically conducted in the spring and the fall when the D.C. weather is most hospitable to nonagenarians. In fact, the “most experienced” veteran in our group was a spry 97-years-young, who walked without so much as a cane. Our group consisted of 10 WWII vets, 37 Korean War, 20 Cold War and 16 Vietnam War vets.

Volunteers from the organization roamed each of the locations with extra wheelchairs and bottles of water for any who needed it, and at the conclusion of each stop, careful roll call was taken to ensure that every person was back on board the bus.

We then headed to Arlington National Cemetery to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While the tomb guards cannot break from their precision routine, we were told that if you heard a faint scrape on the pavement as they passed, from the taps on the soles of their shoes, that was as much as they were permitted to acknowledge and salute the veterans, while performing their ceremonial role.

The final stop in D.C. was at a hotel for a banquet dinner and closing comments. Then a quick drive back to the airport, where we re-boarded our aircraft. By this point, it was after 8 p.m., and most were clearly tired, either by their exertion or from the memories that were stirred up. Landing at SWF after the less than one-hour flight, no one on board was prepared for the arrival they received. As each veteran walked down the hall towards the baggage claim area, a roar erupted from the hundreds of well-wishers who packed the facility. A narrow pathway was roped off amid the pandemonium to allow us to proceed to a desk where the guardians signed the veterans out of the program, and then we navigated through the throng, saluted by members of local VFW chapters, packs of scouts, friends, family, uniformed active-duty members and countless others from the area waving flags and banners. Some of the veterans became emotional, either recalling the original celebrations when they returned, or in the case of many Vietnam War veterans, who were only now receiving the appreciative homecoming they were denied so many years ago.

After retrieving my car, I drove my uncle home, returning him around 11 p.m. He was awake for nearly 20 hours straight, and while I had my trepidations before the event about how he would endure, he came through with flying colors, stimulated by a day unlike any other he had previously experienced.

I can only thank those volunteers and organizers who made this day possible. For those veterans reading this, or those with relatives or friends who served, I suggest you seek out your closest Honor Flight chapter and apply.