The day began at 1:35 A.M. when my doorbell rang. It was my dad. I told him we’d leave at 2:00, but he was naturally early. Around 1:50, we were joined by Archie Kennedy and his son Darryl. We hopped in the car and headed to Midway. We were not the first people there, but close. The veterans began to arrive, greet each other and swap stories. The Honor flight volunteers set up check in stations. I was introduced to Mr. Ed Martz. Ed was the other veteran I was responsible for. I asked them to count off (they responded with 47, 3, a pattern that continued throughout the day with various numbers) and we went to the processing stage.
The veterans and guardians were processed in and headed to the security check point. We were met by a group of new graduates from the Great Lakes Naval Base. Each of these new sailors took a veteran and escorted them through security to the gate. At the gate, the U.S.O. had breakfast sandwiches, coffee, fruit and doughnuts. As we were settling in, the “Andrews Sisters” showed up. They posed for a few pictures and sang a few songs and then it was time to board.
Once on the plane, we settled in for a relaxing flight to Washington. During the flight, Ed and dad were swapping stories as were the rest of the vets. Upon arrival at Dulles, we were greeted by two water cannons shooting an arc over the plane. Inside the terminal there were people from the honor Flight Network as well as cheering and shaking the hand of each veteran. After a bathroom break we loaded the busses for the trip to the World War Two Memorial. On the bus ride, the lady seated in front of us told us that her co-worker had brought in an article from the Hammond Times that dad was in. She was surprised to meet someone so famous.
The rain was coming down, but not the spirits of the Veterans. We arrived at the Memorial and assembled for a flag and flower ceremony. After the ceremony we were free to walk around the memorial. Dad took some time at the Pacific marker to have a picture taken by the Guam inscription. About that time, the wind and rain picked up considerably. We headed for the information pavilion where Senator Bob Dole was greeting the many veterans who were there that day. The busses arrived and we boarded them again. Our next stop was the Iwo Jima Marine Memorial. The rain came harder, but several veterans (mostly Marines and certainly dad) got off the bus to get a closer look and some pictures.
After boarding the bus we went to Fort Meyer. Fort Meyer houses the Army troops that serve Arlington National Cemetery. We were greeted by several soldiers and the base commander. The veterans remarked that their mess halls were not equipped with chandeliers, padded chairs and table cloths. Before lunch, we were introduced to several of the men who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Tomb Guards ate with us and made time to talk to each veteran.
It became apparent that we would not be able to seethe Korean, Viet Nam and Lincoln memorials due to the weather so we headed back to the WWII memorial to regroup. It was decided that our next stop would be the National Air and Space Museum near Dulles. This is the museum that houses the Enola Gay. The veterans got a real kick out of looking at all of the old “war birds” and remembering stories about each type of plane that they saw. Ed wanted to go downstairs, but by the time we found the stairwell, the museum was closing.
We boarded the busses again and headed back to the airport. At the gate, the Veterans were serenaded by a group of Brownies and Girl Scouts who happened to be passing through. They sang “Proud to be an American” and “The Star Spangled Banner”. The veterans that could stood. All of them either put their hand on their heart or saluted.
The plane ride home started out as a restful conclusion to the day. One Veteran looked around the plane and wondered how we won the war with all these old men! After we reached cruising altitude, the gentleman that generously paid for the flight ($35,000) got the microphone and announced “Mail Call!” Each veteran was given a packet of mail from family, friends, school children and total strangers thanking them for their service to our country.
As the plane taxied to the gate we again received a water cannon salute, this time accompanied by Chicago fire fighters standing at attention and saluting the plane. Steve Jordan from WGN-TV (channel 9 in Chicago) was with us the entire day. They made an announcement that he needed to deplane first with his crew. After they got off, the veterans prepared to deplane. They were met on the jet way by more members of the Chicago Fire Department who shook hands and thanks each veteran and most of the guardians. As we entered the terminal building, we were met by hundreds of cheering and clapping people. The fire department bagpipe band was playing as the veterans came by. The Freedom Riders were there as well as several troops of Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, Brownies, friends, families and total strangers. My guess is that there were close to 2000 people there to welcome the Veterans home with signs, banners, handshakes, applause and thank yous. It was truly overwhelming for me. I can’t begin to imagine what was going through the minds of the veterans. I know the day formed memories that will last the rest of their lives.
The memorial opened to the public in 2004. It is a tribute to the 16,000,000 men and women who served their country and the 400,000 who didn’t come home. Honor Flight exists so that World War II Veterans get to see their Memorial before it’s too late. They do this at absolutely no cost to the Veteran or his family. For more information, or to sign up a veteran, or to volunteer, visit their website at www.honorflightchicago.org