WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 26, 2008) - Over the past four years, World War II veterans from around the country have been visiting the National Mall memorial here which honors the 16 million who served and the 400,000 who sacrificed their lives more than 63 years ago.

Making sure these vets get to see the National World War II Memorial is Honor Flight founder Earl Morse, a retired Air Force physician's assistant who provides care to the aging heroes in a small Veterans Administration clinic in Springfield, Ohio.

With the completion of the memorial in 2004, an enthusiastic Morse would remark to many of his patients, "hey, man, isn't this great, you have a memorial!" They would reply to him, "well, I wish my friends could have been here to see it" and then everyone would say sooner or later a son, or a daughter or a vet organization would bring them out.

"Turned out none of my 300 patients had been to the memorial, and worse yet, reality set in that they would probably never see America's thank-you for their service since many were in their 80s and lacked the physical and mental capability to complete a trip on their own," Morse said. "Many are wheelchair-bound or on oxygen."

Morse gathered together a few pilots out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Springfield and recruited them to fly World War II veterans in Piper Cubs and Cessnas to Washington for a day trip. The caveat was the vet wouldn't incur a cent toward the trip, so the pilot would be responsible for the $600 to $800 aircraft rental and also had to be with them all day to attend to their personal needs.

"In May 2005 we took off with 11 pilots on six airplanes and flew 12 veterans in," Morse said. "A month later we took off with eight planes and flew 16, then in July we took off with 10 planes and flew in 20 veterans."

Then as the program mushroomed and more vets found out about the trip to see the memorial, Honor Flight started looking at commercial aircraft and began buying up bulk seats on the carriers. That later expanded to include charter flights.

"Jeff Miller out of Henderson, N.C., has chartered six jets and taught other people how to charter jets and now Honor Flight is combined with Honor Air to form the Honor Flight Network," Morse said. "Today, we're in 34 states with more than 75 hubs across the nation and we've flown in more than 15,000 vets since our beginning in 2005.

Noe aged 90 plus three months, Benjamin Hutcherson from Tennessee landed on Normandy Beach in France on D-Day 1944 with the 30th Infantry Division. He said Thursday's visit was his first and probably last visit to the memorial.

"When I first saw the memorial I couldn't help but think about a war without thinking about those who didn't come back... this place kind of awes me," he said. "This memorial makes me feel proud of the country we have and what we have."

James Grimes, 82 of Indianapolis, who served with the 9th Infantry at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, was a bit overwhelmed by the memorial.

"It takes your breath away. The memorial made me remember some of the people who didn't come through it and friends who didn't make it," he said. "You can't help but think of those people when you're here, but it's truly, truly beautiful."

"They've waited more than 60 years to visit a memorial dedicated to them, so for many of them this is their last hurrah," Morse said. "These veterans are without question the most humble, most appreciative, most stoic and most patriotic people who walk this earth. What I'm most proud of with our organization is that at the end of the day when these vets get back on their planes and fly home, everyone of them will know personally how revered, how cherished, how loved and how admired they are by this nation."