As one of the 81 World War II veterans privileged and humbled to be on the May 11 Honor Flight to Washington and the WWII Memorial, I want to share some of the special meanings from this event.
At Baltimore/Washington International airport, we were greeted by representatives of the Honor Flight Network that now covers more than 120 hubs in 41 states. We boarded three buses for the trip to D.C., and we had a police escort with lights and sirens blasting and opening for our caravan down the busy parkway and through the bustling city traffic. Most of us never had seen police lights blinking in front of us, but some admitted they had seen them in the rear view mirror over the years.
After passing the Capitol, White House and various government buildings, described and explained by wonderful local guides, we arrived at the WWII Memorial.
Our first excitement was to learn that the tall, handsome man standing close to where we would exit the bus was none other than Earl Morse, the founder of the Honor Flight program. He was a physicians’ assistant in a veterans’ hospital, and many of his WWII patients lamented they never would see the WWII Memorial completed in 2004. As a private pilot and moved by the fact several of his patients had passed away, he enlisted volunteers from an aero club in Dayton, Ohio, then undertook fundraising to transform an idea to reality. In May 2005, six small planes flew 12 WWII veterans to realize their dream. On Saturday, the Tallahassee Honor Flight was one of five, with others from New York, West Virginia, Tennessee and Texas.
Each of us was moved by the memorial. We learned from the guide that the word “veterans” is not used for the WWII Memorial, as it is for others. The reason is that it is intended to honor not only the military but also the women, children, and men on the home front. The “greatest generation” should be known to include every woman who labored in the defense industry or in the fields, and every child who supported U.S. Bond campaigns and recycling. Our nation’s might was a united effort to win for God and country.
The memorial is located between the Washington and Lincoln monuments, which represent the beginning of our nation and then the saving of a united states. WWII thus is viewed as saving the world from domination.
The Price of Freedom part of the memorial is a wall of stars behind a reflecting pool, with each star representing 100 American service personnel who died or remain missing in the war, for a total of 405,399.
We were privileged to witness a changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknowns at Arlington before returning to BWI, with our police escort clearing the way.
As we entered the airport, we were greeted by Honor Flight folks again, but also several lines of service men and women, clapping and shouting their thanks. At the gate area and just before boarding our return flight, our wheelchair comrades had a special treat. Miss Maryland wished each of them a happy farewell, and when of of the guys requested a kiss, he promptly received one on his cheek. Thereafter, the next one received the same, until one requested that she sit on his lap – and she did, to his joy and our laughter. After we boarded our plane, we heard an announcement for “mail call,” one of the most cherished moments for us overseas. Then each vet was given a manila envelope with letters written by schoolchildren, politicians and family members.
How touching to read the children’s letters and how meaningful for each of us. Then our return flight and an unbelievable welcoming home that commenced with a water salute by the Tallahassee Fire Department and was followed with a parallel-line honor guard of men and women again showing love and respect.
We could hear the swing band playing WWII songs as friends and family gave hugs of welcome.
The greater meaning is not the exciting, well planned and emotionally rewarding trip, but rather the fact there is faith, hope and charity that abounds in Tallahassee and neighboring communities.
Lou Bender is a Professor Emeritus at Florida State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org