By Randy Talbot, TACOM LCMC Staff HistorianNovember 5, 2008
Honor Flight Michigan is a group of dedicated volunteers that arrange two flights a week to take World War II veterans to the District of Columbia to see their memorial. Two types of people go on these flights; World War II veterans and volunteer "guardians" who spend the day as escorts and assisting the veterans.
The cost to the veteran is absolutely nothing, the staff that arranges these flights are not paid, and it is a non-profit organization. The guardians that accompany the veterans volunteer to go, pay their flight costs..., and have one of the most profound, exhausting and invigorating days with a great group of America's heroes.
The day for guardians begins at 2 a.m. with getting ready and driving to Metro Airport to arrive by 4 a.m. It is difficult to get to sleep knowing that shortly, you will have the awesome responsibility for a group of veterans, and making sure that they have a great time, they are safe, and they have no difficulties throughout the day. Before flying, all the guardians meet with the Honor Flight staff. They are told what they need to have with them, along with things to look out for both from an emotional and physical standpoint. Basically, treat the veterans as if they were your own parents.
On Oct. 4, I had the distinct pleasure and honor to "volunteer" as a guardian for an honor flight with 39 veterans and 12 guardians, broken into four groups. Our group had 12 veterans, two in wheelchairs that the other two guardians in the group assisted throughout the day. That left 10 other veterans the responsibility of the team leader.
In a few minutes, the veterans start arriving. Team leaders receive their roster of veterans, medical history, and other items to begin the day. The guardians start meeting their veterans, taking their photos so they can have face recognition, as it will get crowded once we arrive in Washington, D.C. There is also a lot of joking between everyone as we get to know each other. The majority of veterans in our group all come from the same assisted living facility so there is a familiarity with them.
The veterans in our group include Alice Smith, a very charming woman who was a WAVE during the war, and Reuben who has a great sense of humor, jokes with everyone and always has a smile. Jack is in a wheel chair, he is the oldest in our group at nearly 90, and his son-in-law is "his" guardian. George Foye is just a delightful, quiet man, who served in Washington, D.C., during the war intercepting and translating radio traffic. Noah looks like he just stepped off a golf course, deeply tanned with a full head of bright white hair. Then there is Peter who has a myriad of medical problems and is confined to a wheel chair. However, despite his medical condition and lack of mobility, he keeps everyone laughing with his story telling.
Among the other veterans, there is a couple that served in the Navy together during the war, and married after the war was over. Most of the veterans in our group served in the Pacific and were either Navy or Army Air Corps.
With everyone gathered, accounted for, and boarding passes issued, it was time to go through security and go to breakfast. Their T-shirts, lanyards, and "goodie" bags would be there before we flew. If you think about the difficulties we have going through security, imagine 39 elderly ladies and gentlemen, some with replaced knees, hips, pacemakers, leg braces, going through metal detectors! However, we made it through and headed to the Coney Island for breakfast, paid for by donations.
At breakfast, we found two veterans lost their boarding passes and one lost his drivers license. Therefore, the search was on, checking and rechecking... until we found the missing documents-- one veteran had put his in one pocket and remembered us telling them to make sure they grabbed their paperwork. Well, he forgot he already picked his up and placed it in his pocket, and grabbed the paperwork of one of the wheel chair vets. The other vet found his after checking his wallet where he put his boarding pass.
After we resolved the boarding pass mystery, I sat with Robbie who was in the 99th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge. Robbie was evacuated in January 1945 with frostbite and gangrene in both legs. We had a great conversation about his experiences during the war.
The goodie bags arrived, but before we could issue the items, it was time to go to the airport gate. At the gate, the team leaders received a stack of newspapers to hand out to the veterans. Each newspaper had the names of the entire flight on the front page. The veterans were excited to see their names in bold print, broken down by teams. It was a very nice gesture and memento of the day for the veterans. Prior to boarding the plane, it was time for one last bathroom run before boarding.
All of this just set the stage for the day. Here is where you really feel proud to be on these flights, and this is just the beginning of the day.
At the gate, the ticket checker asks the other passengers if they would not mind waiting until a very special group boarded the plane first. She informed the rest of the passengers that this was an Honor Flight, and this special group was World War Two veterans on their way to Washington, D.C., to go to the World War II memorial. The applause, hoots, hollers, and whistles were deafening! People shook the veteran's hands, the veterans looked stunned, but a few started smiling, then they began waving and returning salutes, and shaking hands. They really felt like something special, and they are.
On the plane, the pilot announces that, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a group of very special passengers flying with us today. These men and women served during WWII. Please join me in extending them a very special thanks because they are the fabric of our nation." More applause, more cheers. Robbie turns to me and asks, why everyone was cheering' I told him that it was for him and the rest of the group, in appreciation for everything they did for all of us sitting on this plane today. We are all so grateful!
After a 90 minute flight, we remain on the plane and let everyone else get off. Then we helped the veterans up and proceed to deplane.
9:30 a.m. Reagan National Airport.
No one was ready for what happened next, but it was the most beautiful, heart warming expression of thanks and gratitude you could witness.
There are more than 200 people cheering, forming a walkway for the veterans. An Air Force Master Sgt. is standing at the door saluting, people are cheering, hugging the vets, shaking their hands, crying. People at other gates came over and joined in one of the loudest ovations you can imagine. Men, women, children, people from other countries, and even Uncle Sam joined in! It was red, white, and blue, flags, posters, banners, and the bright green shirts of the Honor Flight network that meets every flight of veterans to Washington. It makes you feel so proud, so joyful, and the veterans loved it. Young women hugging them, grown men with tears on their cheeks wanting to shake a hand and say thank you. They are all strangers, but all so grateful.
And it continued throughout Reagan National Airport, an escort of well-wishers, people that wanted to take the veterans picture, or be in a picture with them. The airline staff insisted on pushing the wheel chairs out to the bus. What a great reception by total strangers! People asked the guardians how they could be a part of this, thanking us for what we are doing.
Our bus driver was an absolute riot! He kidded with the vets while giving them a short tour of Washington on the way to the WWII memorial. The veterans received their "Proud WWII Veteran" light blue t-shirts that they quickly put on. They were so proud of these shirts, one vet mentioned that he had changed 5 times that morning before coming down to make sure he looked good in his t-shirt!
10:00 a.m. Arrival at the WWII Memorial.
This is an absolutely beautiful memorial. What a great job they did, even including a "Kilroy was here" etching. An Army lieutenant colonel met the bus and saluted every veteran, welcoming them to Washington, D.C. There were quite a few people walking around the grounds when we arrived. Everywhere the veterans went, people wanted to shake their hand, say thanks, hug them, take their picture, or have one taken with them. One woman tearfully thanked one veteran, gave him a big hug and kiss, and held his hand while she talked to him. This went on throughout the day all over the memorial.
At the Michigan column, we took pictures of the veterans standing next to their home state, beaming with pride, and just in awe of the memorial. They were like little kids, looking at everything, taking it all in. You could tell there were some that felt deep emotions, but managed to hold it in. One veteran told me that he nearly lost it when he saw the Normandy etching. He was assigned as a liaison to the RAF and flew into Normandy on D+3. He remembered the wrecks in the waters, the bodies on the shore, and in the water. He went back last year and could not believe the transformation of Normandy. But today, he remembered the loss, the carnage, the unbelievable courage of those that landed on the beaches or dropped behind the lines.
Although there was a professional photographer with us, everyone received a camera, and took pictures throughout the day. The guardians took pictures with them as well, anything they wanted. We made a few water runs for the veterans, making sure they were not thirsty. One volunteer from a Virginia-based VFW had a large cooler with water for the veterans.
We were scheduled to leave at 11:30 a.m., so as we were rounding them back up to the buses, a large black limo pulled up and stopped. Within a couple of minutes, the memorial was alive with sirens. A large police escort led four busses of WWII veterans from Alabama to the memorial. As the buses pulled in, Sen. Bob Dole stepped out of the limo. He is like flypaper to the veterans. They grouped around him, thanking him, the senator talked with them, shaking hands and posing for pictures. As his handlers tried to get him to a wreath ceremony with the Alabama vets, he stalled, wanting to spend some time with the vets from Michigan. For those who may not remember, Dole recovered in Michigan following his wounding in Italy. While there, he met a Soldier from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the "Go for Broke" Nisei unit of Japanese Americans that fought in Italy, France and Germany in WWII. The unit received 22 Medals of Honor, including Dole's very close friend and fellow hospital mate, Sen. Daniel Inoyae from Hawaii.
After lunch, it was on our way to Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Va., and the 1:00 p.m. changing of the guard. They went to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy's gravesite first, and received a tram tour through the grounds. The "narrator" was a wonderful lady named Jennifer, who kept everyone laughing, as she told stories about the monuments on the grounds. She broke into song a few times that the vets joined in with, she waved flags, blew party whistles, you name it, she had so much patriotic stuff with her. The veterans loved it.
1:00 p.m., Arlington National Cemetery.
If you have never seen the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, you are missing one of the most dramatic, choreographed, precision displays in the U.S. Army. The Old Guard is amazing. Two weeks ago, when hurricanes were going up the east coats, the Soldiers of the Old Guard decided amongst themselves that they would remain on duty at the Tomb of the Unknowns, even though their superiors told them they did not need to.
Guarding the tomb was more important than their safety. After the changing of the guard, we boarded the tram again, for a "personalized" tour of the grounds to see Joe Louis' grave, and many others. As we departed about 2:00 p.m., Jennifer wanted to thank the veterans for giving her the opportunity to raise her four children in the freedom they and her grandfather provided. Three of her children are in military service, and she gave her son a choice of what he wanted to do as long as it was Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, or Coast Guard.
We got another tour through Washington, past the White House (risking getting a ticket) and to the Iwo Jima memorial. As we arrived, the contingent from Alabama was there, along with one from Ohio and another group as well. It was an amazing array of colors, with veterans in blue, gray, or white shirts, and guardians in bright yellow (Alabama), white (Ohio), and orange (Michigan). There had to be more than 500 of us there. What a photo!
As the day was winding down, it was back to the airport, passing out boarding passes, and going through security before we made it to the gate. Again, the ticket checker announced she would like to board a special group flying on the plane to Detroit. As she announced it was an honor flight of WWII Veterans, people from other gates came over and applauded, shaking hands, and thanking the veterans. Even the ticket checker insisted on hugging every veteran before they got on the plane. And on the plane, the pilot again made an announcement about the special group of travelers on the plane. More applause! Some even got out of their seats to thank veterans near them, engaging in conversation, hugging, shaking hands, taking their picture.
6:30 p.m. Arrival at Detroit.
It was the end of a very long day. You feel so proud to be part of this group, on this flight, on this day, at this time, and in this place. This flight has a profound effect on everyone who goes on these flights.
As we got the veterans on their buses back to the assisted living center, or into family cars, it was a sad moment. They had graciously thanked us "guardians" for taking care of them and making their day so enjoyable. We got so much more out of this day, and received it from these great men and women.
The flight is a lot of fun. There are so many stories with the veterans, they are such great people with so much depth and so much honor.
If you get a chance to go on an Honor Flight, currently in 31 states, do it. It will have a profound effect on you, your outlook, and your understanding.
It is an exhausting day, you are running around a lot, keeping a watchful eye to make sure the veterans are OK, making sure they take their medications, eat, drink, and use the bathroom. There is a lot of responsibility as well. However, you care for them as you would your own parent, and treat them with the dignity they deserve. Currently, there are 700 veterans on the list here and 500 guardians waiting to go in Michigan. But the board will continue flying veterans as long as they want to go.