By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneNovember 6, 2009
Hundreds of flag-waving patriots put on quite a celebration Oct. 24 when 122 World War II veterans arrived at Huntsville International Airport after a daylong trip to Washington, D.C., to see their memorial.
There were JROTC re-enactors dressed in WW II uniforms and dancing in the halls as families and supporters congregated in the airport's new waiting area. The Huntsville Concert Band and vocalist Margie Cumbie performed patriotic and WW II era music for the crowd and Girl Scout Troop 287 led the Pledge of Allegiance. Volunteers from the Association of the U.S. Army gave out flags and the Patriot Guard Riders stood at attention as the event's color guard. Uncle Sam -- in the form of local military cheerleader retired Sgt. 1st Class David Carney -- made periodic announcements of when the chartered plane would land. Entire families waited eagerly to embrace their returning veterans.
When the first WW II veteran finally came through the entry way, a cheer from the crowd went up. As they went down the walkway, the veterans were welcomed, thanked and hugged by hundreds of well-wishers.
It was enough to bring retired Air Force Col. (Dr.) Tom McCrickard, a veteran of WW II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, to tears.
"It was quite a surprise to see that outpouring of people meeting us at the airport," he said. "It was a great end to an outstanding event."
Joe Fitzgerald, president of Tennessee Valley Honor Flight, which flies WW II veterans to Washington, D.C. at no charge to see their memorial, was happy with the day and the great way it ended.
"Every time, the crowd gets bigger and bigger," he said of the Huntsville welcome home. "It will change your life to be part of welcoming these old warriors back home."
The Honor Flight, the ninth trip since the inception of the local program in 2007, held special significance for its organizers and supporters.
"We hit the 1,000 mark with this flight," Fitzgerald said. "It was close because we needed 120 WW II veterans and we had 122 who made the flight. I was so worried more would drop out on Friday night and we wouldn't reach 120. Their health, the travel time to get here and all the other complications can make it difficult for them all to show up on Saturday morning. I was sure we weren't going to make 1,000. But, on Saturday morning, the 122 that we expected were there."
The oldest on the flight was 96 years old. Many veterans were frail, and had to use wheelchairs and rely heavily on their guardians for assistance. One blind veteran happened to be assigned to a guardian who had a gift for describing all the veteran couldn't see.
The weather made the trip difficult, with rain causing some changes in the day's activities.
"It wasn't raining when we visited the World War II memorial," Fitzgerald said. "So we were able to have a good visit there and we had our ceremony honoring the 25 burial flags that were flown on an F-16 from the Alabama National Guard and were presented at the Honor Flags Presentation."
The veterans did remain on the six tour buses during stops at other memorials because of the rain. But they donned ponchos and used umbrellas so they could attend the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
"It's great to see. It's wonderful to see for many reasons and on many levels," Fitzgerald said. "But to see it in inclement weather really makes it special because you can see the rain dripping off the noses and the ears of the guards and off their rifles, and you understand the dedication and commitment they bring to their service."
The veterans were also treated to a window tour of Washington before boarding their chartered flight for the trip home.
"Every one of these veterans always says this has to be one of the best days of their entire lives," Fitzgerald said. "They thank us all day long. They feel recognized. They feel somebody knows that they did something very important once a long time ago."
For veteran Crickard, that "something very important" included flying 50-plus missions as a B-17 pilot in Europe and 50-plus missions as a B-29 pilot in the Pacific during WW II, flying the KC-135 tanker in Korea and flying the B-52 in Vietnam during a 28-year Air Force career.
"This trip was awe inspiring," he said. "Our memorial was a little late in coming. A lot of my comrades didn't get to live long enough to see it."
Editor's note: A premiere showing of the documentary "Still Standing," featuring the Tennessee Valley Honor Flight, will be aired Dec. 7 at the Monaco Theater. The last complete Honor Flight of WW II veterans from the Tennessee Valley is set for April 24. Other flights will be a mix of veterans from WW II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.