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COMMUNITY VOICE

'Honor Flight' provides one last meaningful mission for WWII vets

Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - 12:01 am

I had the pleasure of accompanying my father to Washington, D.C., on the Honor Flight last October.

May is going to be a very exciting month for Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana. Two flights to D.C. are scheduled, one early in the month, the second the last week in May. Additionally, “Honor Flight — One Last Mission,” a professionally produced documentary, is being shown on Memorial Day at Parkview Field. (It drew a crowd of 27,000 people in Milwaukee.)

If you want additional information on the Honor Flight organization, call Sandie or Bob at 633-0049.

The day of the Honor Flight

Scattered across the community, the World War II veterans waited at their doors full of excitement. It was 5:30 a.m., still dark. They'd put their name on the list over six months ago — some would claim six decades — a long time to tarry when you're 90 years old. But at long last it was here, the day of the Honor Flight, when they'd travel to Washington, D.C., to visit their memorial.

One by one, each veteran was picked up by a personal guardian, usually a son or daughter, someone to assist him and make his day as safe, rewarding and memorable as possible.

After a short trip across town, the senior soldiers arrived at the Air National Guard base where they reported for duty, pulling on commemorative shirts and hats designating them as members of the celebrated company. No sad farewells, induction haircuts or medical examinations at this departure. Just smiles, reunions with old buddies, a hot breakfast for everyone and a hearty welcome. Then it was time to board.

Dawn was breaking as fellow citizens formed an impressive flag line on the tarmac leading up to the Airbus 320, which would ferry the men to our nation's capitol. The old heroes seemed dazed as they walked past Old Glory, climbed up the wide steps, and paused at the cabin door where they turned and waved an emotional goodbye.

An hour later at their arrival at Reagan National, the men were astonished once again to be greeted as important dignitaries. Now total strangers, Americans who understood the significance of their contribution stepped forward beaming, clasping their hands, patting their shoulders, hugging and thanking them for their service. It was a beautiful sight, streaming sunshine and tears, made even more poignant with a band playing “Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else but Me.”

The bus drove straight to that most paramount destination, the World War II Memorial. As the veterans wandered the plaza, time stood still.

Discovering Eisenhower's quote, “You are about to embark upon the great crusade … the eyes of the world are watching,” a retired insurance executive recalled serving 44 months in England as a crew chief on B-17 bombers flying missions into Normandy. He reflected on the special bond between crew chief and pilot, confessing that he lost at least 12 courageous pilot friends.

After posing for a photo with his grandson under the Pacific Arch, a still brawny elderly Marine, who seldom spoke of the war, told of hearing stealthy footsteps in the black sands of Iwo Jima during nighttime guard duty.

An Army vet remembered the happiness he felt at coincidentally bumping into another homesick private, a fellow classmate at Leo High School, at an Easter sunrise service on Guadalcanal in 1944. He returned to the farm; his friend was lost forever.

A widower in a wheelchair, who'd celebrated 62 years of marriage before his wife's death, said he never forgot the devastation of Nagasaki or his joy returning home with yards and yards of the finest, softest, whitest silk for a wedding gown.

Staring at the gold stars on Freedom Wall, a veteran shrugged, claiming he was not worthy of honor. He'd never been shot at, he'd always had a hot meal and a warm bed, and he'd merely fueled Patton's tanks. And then a hardened old soldier, stout and strong like an ancient oak, stepped forward and put his arm around his comrade. “God bless you and God bless Saint Patton who rescued us when we were trapped in the Argonne forest!”

They saw the best of America on that cloudless day — the polished granite wall, the wise and patient Lincoln, one historic site after another. In the late afternoon, the veterans arrived at Arlington Cemetery. The sun was low, casting the headstones in a golden backlight as their bus slowly wound its way up through the hallowed ground until it approached the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Then the men of the Greatest Generation, many leaning heavily on the arms of their children, removed their hats and stood silently at attention, watching the changing of the guard, contemplating the past and the future.

The lights of Fort Wayne sparkled below as the plane approached Baer Field. At 9 p.m. the wheels touched down and the plane glided to a stop. Right on cue, a lone bugler stepped forward and played taps. The day was done, all was well, God was nigh. Then happy cheers, thank-yous and farewells poured out of 70 satisfied customers, exhausted soldiers of World War II who would never forget the day of their Honor Flight.

All veterans, their families and friends are invited to attend a Memorial Day screening of the heartwarming documentary “Honor Flight — One Last Mission” at 6 p.m. May 27 at Parkview Field. No charge.

Connie Kovas Moreno is a resident of Fort Wayne.