Sixteen million men and women served in the United States armed forces in World War II. And many of the Americans who stormed Normandy in morning darkness, stripped down Nazi flags in occupied territories, dug fox holes through the snow in the Battle of the Bulge, and lay wounded in field hospitals an ocean away from family, are still among us.
Nearly 1.7 million WWII veterans are living today, and the Honor Flight Network exists to make sure they are not forgotten. Since 2005, this nonprofit organization has flown nearly 100,000 service members to visit the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.
Each coterie begins even before participants reach the memorial, veteran Vincil Hunter explains. Hunter joined the Army right out of high school and served in the infantry from 1943 to 1946. In October 2012, he joined an Honor Flight with two veteran friends, a high school buddy who had served as a bombardier in a B-17, and another friend who had served in the Navy.
“We enjoyed the camaraderie with all the different people,” Hunter said, “We’d walk up and down the aisle a little bit to talk to them and ask what branch of the service they were in, and just talk among ourselves.”
“I had brought along a CD, I called it 1942 jukebox,” Hunter continued, “With all the Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey records...to ask the pilots if they’d play it when things got dull.”
The idea to facilitate veterans paying homage to the memorial came to retired Air Force Capt. Earl Morse while working in a clinic for the Department of Veterans Affairs. In speaking with the veterans, Morse found that few were making the trip to Washington, despite their interest. The Honor Flight Network was born. It has since grown to 142 hubs across 42 states.
“East of the Mississippi, most of the hubs do a one day trip,” Honor Flight Network’s Chairman of the Board Jim McLaughlin explained. “Our hubs west of the Mississippi become a two-day or a three-day trip, between the travel distance and the time change.”
“Most hubs will attempt to see the WWII memorial; they then will go to the Vietnam and Lincoln. Depending on the amount of time many of them will go to the Iwo-Jima statue,” McLaughlin finished.
“It was very touching,” one veteran recalled, “You kind of got a lump in your throat as you walked around that thing and thought about your friends that were killed along with you in your particular outfit.”
On a mid-afternoon near Lunéville France, Hunter sat across from his best friend in the Army, their feet dangling in the fox hole they had just dug. They were stopped for the night before continuing on to the Rhine River.
“A German 88mm shell burst in the trees, came down, hit me in the arm and chest, and killed my best friend just immediately right in front of me. Hit him in the chest and he was killed,” Hunter said.
The shrapnel that ripped into Hunter’s chest left him in and out of hospitals for the next six months. He was decorated with a Purple Heart medal.
The WWII veterans are stoic, McLaughlin observed, and although they never asked for or expected a thank you, it is certainly welcomed.
“The same is true for the Korean veterans and the Vietnam veterans,” McLaughlin explained, “They appreciate the fact that people now understand what they did. What they did for our country, what they did for our nation, what they did for the entire world. It is only fitting that we should thank them for it.”
It is estimated that 600 WWII veterans die each day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. As veterans from one era pass, the Network will continue on by helping survivors of the Korean and Vietnam Wars to visit Washington, D.C. More than 16,000 WWII veterans are on the national waiting list, hoping for a chance to fly.
The Honor Flight Network is entirely run on donations. It has never received any government funds nor does it ever intend to. There are tens of thousands of volunteers answering phone calls, contacting veterans, welcoming them home at the airports, and arranging flight schedules.
“It just brought back so many sad memories that you really remembered,” Hunter said of his WWII monument visit, “And you went around there with tears on your cheek or a lump in your throat.”