Volunteers Fly 'Greatest Generation' to See Their Memorial
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 14, 2005 Thousands of visitors have come to the National World War II Memorial here since it opened last year. But the miles between the memorial and the ever-dwindling, increasingly frail ranks of World War II veterans make it difficult for many members of "The Greatest Generation" to make the pilgrimage to the nation's long-overdue tribute to their service.
Roger Flower, right, one of the pilots who flew some of the World War II veterans to the Manassas, Va., Regional Airport on the Honor Flight program on June 11, chats with Albert Pencil, 83, in the airport's VIP lounge. Pencil served with the 4th Marines during the war. Photo by Rudi Williams
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"We're old, can't remember everything, and (are) about ready to die," said Alvin Ragland of Urbana, Ohio, who was able to see the memorial June 11 thanks to the "Honor Flight" program of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, aero club. "I'm a veteran of World War II, and I'm 85 years old, and I never had anybody treat me any nicer than the Honor Flight. It's the best thing that ever happened to me."
Ragland was among 14 World War II veterans and one Vietnam War veteran who were flown aboard eight small, light airplanes from Ohio's Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport to Manassas (Va.) Regional Airport and driven to the World War II Veterans Memorial on the Washington Mall in a stretch Hummer to see the memorial that's dedicated to honor their sacrifices.
Honor Flight was conceived by Earl Morse, a physician assistant and retired Air Force captain, to honor veterans he has taken care of for the past 27 years. All of the pilots and co-pilots donated their time, and the veterans were flown in free of charge.
Ragland was overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of everyone involved in his trip to the memorial. Pointing his finger at Morse, Ragland said, "Here's a man who loves us veterans enough that he doesn't charge us a dime -- you can't pay him for nothing! The government don't even give me nothing free.
"If you want to help the veterans out, who made it possible for you and me to be talking here today," he told American Forces Press Service, "help this man help the veterans to come to see what they fought for."
Ragland said he'd seen pictures of the memorial, "but you can't believe it until you see it."
"This is something for the World War II veterans," he said proudly. "You can see how the people love the veterans by the people here, can't you? These people here either had a grandpa, daddy, uncle or somebody in the war -- 16 million of us, but we're going away -- fast."
Morse said he thought of flying disadvantaged World War II veterans from Ohio to Washington because they couldn't afford to pay for the trip. Therefore, he said, they would never see the memorial that honors their sacrifices unless they were flown to Washington free of charge.
"I was growing tired of watching my World War II veterans die without ever seeing their memorial," he said.
He approached his father, who is a Vietnam vet, and suggested renting a plane to fly to Washington so he could see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "And, I said, 'Let's put some World War II veterans with us who would never see their memorial if we don't (take them),'" Morse recalled. "He agreed to that, and that's what got the whole ball rolling.
"We did the first flight on May 21 this year with 12 World War II veterans aboard seven aircraft," he continued. "Today we're flying out 14 World War II veterans and one Vietnam veteran, who is my father."
His father, Erlis (Earl) Morse, 71, is a retired Air Force staff sergeant who served in Da Nang, Vietnam, from 1968 to 1969.
Morse said the flights are financed solely by individual donations. "We don't have any government or corporate sponsorship," he noted. "Probably the biggest donors are the people you see out here today, which are our pilots. The pilots are renting these aircraft, paying for the entire aircraft rental fee, which ranges between $400 and $750 per day to fly World War II veterans out here."
The vets were flown to Manassas aboard Piper Archer, Arrow, Aztec, Cessna 401, Cessna 201 and Mooney Ovation aircraft.
Morse said that when he planned the first trip, he had an aircraft and a pilot, and the only thing missing was a World War II veteran. He approached a veteran to ask the question.
"Supposed I rent an airplane and I pay for it, and I'll fly you out to Washington, D.C., would you like to go?" Morse said he asked the aging veteran.
"I was ready for him to say, 'Yes,' or 'No,' or 'Let me discuss it with my wife,'" Morse said. "I wasn't ready for him to start crying!
"That's when I knew we were on to something, because the next week we asked another World War II veteran the exact same questions and the response was the same -- he cried, too," Morse continued. "Since then, it's been so taxing on our staff to ask World War II veterans if they want to go. They break down, the staff breaks down."
Consequently, the veterans are now given an application, told to fill it out and return it if they want to visit the memorial, Morse noted.
"It's not tough to find a World War II veteran," said Morse, adding that there are about 160 signed up for the next five trips this year. "(Practically) any male over the age of 78 is a World War II veteran. But on a personal level, a lot of the guys you see out here today, I've taken care of them for the past six years" as a physician assistant at a Veterans Affairs satellite clinic in Springfield, Ohio.
After visiting the memorial, the veterans were taken to the Smithsonian to see a display called "the Price of Freedom," which is geared toward World War II veterans, who are dying at a rate of about 1,020 per day, according to Morse. "For us to get them out here to show them this memorial and to see a tribute to them at the Smithsonian is what our objective is," he said.
Morse said the last Honor Flight this year will take place in October, and the program will resume in April. He cited dwindling daylight hours and cold weather at the outdoor memorial for the planned hiatus.
Morse said volunteers from AmVets, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and other groups helped Honor Flights. "This project is completely impossible without the support of lots and lots of people," he said.
When they left the Smithsonian, the vets were then "Hummered" back to Manassas Airport for a catered dinner at the Freedom Museum, an affiliate member of the Smithsonian Institution. The museum features a spectacular display of memorabilia, photographs, artifacts and interactive displays, which detail U.S. military involvement in 20th century wars and conflicts. It also features an outdoor collection of military vehicles.
Sitting at a table in the museum's VIP room, Elwood Lannon, 84, asked Lewis Minnich, 79, "Did you ever have chicken this good in the Army?" as they dined on fried chicken, roast beef, mashed potatoes and corn.
Not missing a bite, Minnich replied, "I didn't have no chicken in the Army during the war."
Minnich, who served with the 65th Infantry, 3rd Army, under Gen. George S. Patton, said, "I thought the memorial was pretty nice. I could never have ... paid for my trip. I couldn't afford to come out here."
"I don't think I would have made it here if they hadn't flown me up here to see this," said Bud Robinson, 83, who served in an antiaircraft unit guarding the U.S. coasts during the war. "I really had a great feeling when I first saw that memorial -- exciting! I'd seen pictures of it, but there's nothing like seeing it in person."
At another table sat pilot Roger Flower, who flew some of the veterans to Manassas. "The reason we do it is to honor the veterans from World War II who have created a lifestyle that we enjoy today," Flower noted. "I do it because my father was one of them. All four of my uncles were World War II veterans, but they're all gone now. So I'm able to pay them back a little bit by helping these guys. They want to come do this, and it makes me proud to be able to help them do it."
Flower, who has been flying airplanes for about 50 years, spent 31 years as a Navy aviator, retiring as a captain. "I flew fire bombers for four years after I retired from the Navy, then I went to work for FedEx as a mechanic," said Flower, who flew a four-passenger Cessna 177 Cardinal to bring the veterans to see the memorial.
"For me, it's kind of payback," Flower noted. "I know what the world would have been like had they not done what they did. It would not have been a very nice place."