WASHINGTON, DC — The group of elderly gentlemen arrived on the darkened plaza long after the office workers and most tourists had left for the day. Some suffered through the aches and pains of old age and walked from the bus that had dropped them off in the middle of the city. Others had no choice, they slowly and carefully managed their wheelchairs down an incline. They had no way of knowing it in the darkness, but a group of kids from Los Angeles was already there, and it seemed they were waiting for the men. They had just arrived in the city, no one knew what to expect.
Within moments, the elderly men were in amongst the group of kids. The men’s eyes were still adjusting to the fading light of the day when one young kid grabbed a man’s shoulder. He turned to look and saw a girl, perhaps 15 years old. She smiled at him and then hugged him. She then told him thank you. The floodgates had opened and all around the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. on that evening, young people shook the hands of the elderly men, hugged them, thanked them, and asked if they could pose for photos with them. The elderly men, all World War II veterans, had come to see the memorial built in their honor. The young people from Los Angeles had come to see the nation’s capitol and to learn about the very men they were just then meeting face to face. As the tour group leaders gathered the men to return to the bus, the young people all stood and applauded.
The men arrived at the Memorial as part of an honor flight. Around the nation, organizations have come together to provide WWII veterans with no-cost travel to the nation’s capitol to visit the memorial. The organization serving South Hillsborough is known as Honor Flights of West Central Florida. They rely almost exclusively on individual donations to repay a small portion of an immeasurable debt by providing the men and women who served with the transportation to visit their memorial.
More than 16 million Americans served in World War II and more than 400,000 perished in the war. The World War II Memorial opened in 2004 to honor the men and women who gave their last full measure of devotion, and those who were ready and willing to do so in the name of the United States. The memorial is prominently placed between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument with the U.S. Capitol Building serving as an appropriate backdrop. Perhaps also fitting is its visibility from the steps of the Capitol, a vivid reminder that war and freedom carry an infinitely high price.
On June 23, The Sun City Center Republican Club has invited Jim Haake, a member of Honor Flight of West Central Florida, to speak about honor flights for veterans in South Hillsborough. Five Sun City Center veterans took part in their last effort and two have already signed up for a future trip.
Of the 16 million who served, approximately 1.9 million veterans survive today, 65 years after the war’s end. It is estimated that 850 American WWII veterans die each day. Those who organize the honor flights know that time is of the essence.
President Harry Truman said, “Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. American will never forget their sacrifices.”
Honor flights are a small measure towards recognizing the debt and gratitude of which President Truman spoke and are also proof that America has not forgotten. In Washington today, there seems to be an endless stream of veterans on the honor flights, usually with Members of Congress and active-duty military personal on hand to greet them.
After meeting the young people from California, the veterans visited the memorial again, along with the other memorials in Washington, this time in daylight. One who lost a son in Vietnam found his name on the Vietnam Memorial and made a pencil rubbing of it as a keepsake. Everywhere the men went in the city that day, they were treated like celebrities. Tourists asked if they could pose for photos with them. Young people asked questions of them and learned about war and life in ways that no textbook could possibly illustrate. America has not forgotten.
But now more than ever, time is of the essence. For a grateful nation, and for many WWII veterans, it is now or never. Back home, they may often be viewed as anonymous elderly people in the grocery store or in the post office. But in the nation’s capitol, they are honored and treated as the heroes they are. It was hard earned and it is well deserved. Honor flights allow all Americans to say “Thank you” to the men and women who once saved the world.
For information on how you can help, visit Honor Flights of West Central Florida online at www.honorflightwcf.org or call Fred Olson at 941-896-6576 or Brad Billings at 727-542-1559.