HONOR FLIGHT TO WASHINGTON, D.C.
SEPTEMBER 9, 2014
Honor Flights are one-day trips for World War II and Korean War veterans to visit the war memorials in Washington, D.C. They are now beginning to include Vietnam War veterans on the trips. The Honor Flights are financed by private donations.
Korean War veteran Guy Pollard and World War II veteran Charles Gray were selected for the Honor Flight from Springfield, MO on September 9, 2014.[i] Guy Pollard had this to say at the end of the trip, “A huge day –Huge experience!!”
There was a preliminary meeting of the Veterans and the Honor Flight organizers and volunteers on the Sunday afternoon preceding the flight. At that meeting the Veterans were given directions, assigned Guardians and provided with blue shirts and backpacks. They were also told that they could park in the airport employees’ parking lot when they arrived on September 9th.
The Springfield, MO based Honor Flight began with the arrival of the Veterans at 4:15 am on Tuesday September 9th. They were welcomed by a large group of dedicated, hard-working, volunteers from Honor Flight of the Ozarks. The Veterans were identified, given ID tags, teamed with their Guardians and quickly ushered through the boarding process onto a Boeing 767. The plane passengers included 75 veterans, 75 guardians and 17 support personnel (including physicians, nurses and group leaders). The average age of the Veterans was 87. The group was quite colorful with Veterans wearing blue shirts, Guardians in red shirts and the support personnel in other colors. Also, loaded on the plane were 75 wheelchairs which were always available for anyone in need (a number of Veterans were confined to the wheelchairs).
The flight to Washington, D.C. was uneventful, but did include a light lunch on the way. Upon arrival at Dulles Airport, the Veterans were greeted by “yellow shirted” Washington, D.C. volunteers. After that, everyone (including the 75 wheelchairs) was loaded onto 3 large charter buses and the group was off for the 40 minute drive to downtown Washington, D.C. During the tour of the war memorials the 3 buses were escorted by a motorcycle police officer as well as an officer in a police car (with red lights and sirens in operation as needed).
The first stop on the National Mall was the World War II Memorial. The Veterans, accompanied by their Guardians, spread out over the large expanse of the memorial, reading inscriptions, taking photographs and viewing the details of the structure. The World War II Memorial edifice is largely traditional in design with many of the features prominent in earlier D.C. memorials. It is in the form of a large oval with arches, eagles, wreaths, pillars and a water fountain. In many ways it represents the end of an era and is dedicated to those who were called upon to help preserve the best of that era.
The three buses moved on (with escorts) and stopped in an area near both the Korean and Vietnam Memorials. Many Veterans walked (or rolled) toward the Korean Memorial which includes a polished granite wall containing photographic images of support troops and the nearby 19 stainless steel statues representing a military squad on patrol in rugged terrain. The Korean Memorial is by no means traditional and represents a sharp turn into wartime realism. The faces on the youthful statues do not appear young, but rather troubled, anxious and aging! No doubt the sculptor was attempting to say something about war with this representation!
A short walk further the blue shirted Veterans encountered the Vietnam Memorial. The memorial wall of names could be seen from a distance, but nearby as one approached the wall was the bronze statue called The Three Soldiers (or Patrol Coming In). It is a striking image of not just service men, but clearly a Hispanic American, an African American and a White American. The three seem to be looking at that very long gabbro stone wall with its seemingly never ending list of names (reflecting your own image as you view the names). And nearby is the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, depicting woman’s role in the war. The Vietnam Memorial has a tremendous message to convey and makes the final break with the traditional style and focus of the World War II era.
The next stop for the procession of escorted buses was the Marine Corps War Memorial (aka., Iwo Jima Memorial), located near the Arlington National Cemetery. This depiction of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima is huge -much larger than it appears to be in films and photographs. Unveiled in 1954, it is consistent with the theme of the World War II Memorial.
After the Marine Memorial, the 3 buses moved slowly through Arlington National Cemetery and parked in front of the Memorial Amphitheater. The Veterans walked (or rolled) around to the plaza area where the Tomb of the Unknowns is located. After a short wait they were able to observe the very impressive Changing of the Guard ceremony. This memorial is the oldest one visited by the group, established in 1921 after World War I. It is of interest to note that since the development of the DNA testing process there are no longer any “unknown” soldiers, although there are many who are “missing” in action. (The remains of an “unknown” Vietnam soldier were removed from his crypt in 1998 after being identified as an Air Force officer).
The final Washington, D.C. phase of the Honor Flight was the expressway trip to Dulles Airport for the return trip to Springfield. This turned out to be an extremely exciting adventure for the Veterans. For the 40 minute trip, the three buses were escorted by their motorcycle police officer through Washington, D.C. rush hour traffic! Long lines of traffic were parted as the Honor Flight procession passed through and home bound drivers moved to the expressway shoulders. As the buses drew up to the Dulles Airport bus stop, the Veterans let out a series of loud cheers for the bus drivers and the motorcycle policeman!
After a two hour flight the Veterans arrived in Springfield at 10 pm and were greeted by a vast throng welcoming them home. There was yelling, cheering, flags, hugs, gifts and the chords of the Shrine Band. WOW, what a welcoming reception! What a wonderful conclusion to a HUGE experience!
As author of this brief essay, I would like to conclude with a few personal questions, comments and observations. Would it be worthwhile or instructive to ponder the meaning of the transition in outlook and perspective from the World War II Memorial to the Vietnam Memorial? Doing so might prompt fresh insights about how warfare is viewed by the men and women who have been called upon to wage the wars. Is it possible that within this transition there is a glimmer of hope for a more peaceful future?
I sense that some of my World War II peers, who spent most of their lives in the Ozarks, seem to be in what might be termed a time warp. Many of them are still oriented to the life style and cultural outlook of the 1940’s and early 1950’s and are somewhat out-of-touch with the realities of the 2nd decade of the 21st century.
During my lifetime of 88 years, I’ve been in Washington, D.C. three times. First in 1944 when I was in the Navy and again in 1976 at a professional convention. While in Washington this time I was struck by a profound and troubling realization:
With the exception of the 1921 Tomb of the Unknowns, NONE OF THE MEMORIALS WE VISITED WERE THERE IN 1944 (or in 1976)!!!!
All these lives were lost in my lifetime…! I wonder what my grandchildren and great grandchildren will see when they go to Washington, D.C. as senior citizens?
Charles E. Gray
[i] Both Charles Gray and Guy Pollard are Veterans of the United States Navy.