By Kari Hawkins, Rocket StaffMarch 6, 2008
In a room of 125 World War II veterans, it was hard not to find a long-ago friend. And, Henry Hood found several.
The Feb. 26 orientation for the next group of WWII veterans going on Honor Flight to see their memorial in Washington, D.C. was somewhat of a reunion for Hood, who lived in Huntsville for 30 years before moving to Killen. At the orientation, he reconnected with fellow veterans Gil Crain, who had been in his 1952 wedding; Don Worrell, who he worked with while at NASA in the 1970s; and Horace Bibb, who he used to go to church with.
"I was just looking to see some old folks. Then, I saw him," Hood joked as he talked with Bibb and his wife, Harriet.
Hood served as a Navy seaman with the 3rd Fleet on a destroyer in the Pacific, attacking Japanese warships, rescuing pilots who had missed their carrier landings and often going two months without seeing land. Bibb was a Soldier serving in the southern Philippines.
"I was one of the grunts," said Bibb, who is now confined to a wheelchair and whose medical care requires access to an oxygen tank.
"I was drafted right out of high school in Greenville, S.C. In fact, my whole high school class in 1943 was drafted. I reported for duty two weeks after graduation."
Hood and Bibb weren't the only veterans having a good time mixing and mingling at the orientation. So, too, was Chick Wann, who volunteered for the Army during WWII, served with the 151st Combat Engineers in the Asiatic Pacific and European theaters, and then went on to complete a full military career. He is now living in Sheffield, where he is the founder of the local National Guard unit. He is also the uncle of retired Brig. Gen. Bob Stewart, a former astronaut and deputy commanding general of the former Strategic Defense Command at Redstone Arsenal.
For Wann, who will turn 90 tomorrow, the orientation was more like a party.
"I'm so excited about this honor and opportunity," Wann said, with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes. He was accompanied by his wife, Marie, and his daughter, Liz Nunley, who signed him up for Honor Flight.
WWII veterans from across North Alabama attended the Honor Flight orientation in preparation for their April 19 flight to Washington, D.C. The Tennessee Valley Chapter of Honor Flight began transporting WWII veterans to their memorial in 2007, and will continue to do so throughout 2008. The veterans travel for free.
"I can't tell you how proud we are that you are here today," said Joe Fitzgerald, president of the local Honor Flight chapter and the key organizer of the program, as he opened the orientation.
"Our youngest World War II veteran is 79, and he probably lied about his age to fight in the war. Most veterans are in their 80s or 90s. It gets harder and harder to take you on these flights because 1,200 to 1,500 World War II veterans die each day."
That's why Honor Flight is in a hurry to get WWII veterans to their memorial. Last year, the local chapter hosted 131 veterans on Honor Flights. This year, that number will increase to about 500 taken on flights planned for April 19, May 31, Sept. 13 and Oct. 18.
Fitzgerald told the veterans to "prepare for a wonderful trip ... You're going to have the time of your lives. You will see what's been built to honor you.
"You've served faithfully and honorably. You've shown your commitment to community and country. Now, it's our turn to serve you. You are in for a very special day. All of us in Honor Flight will do everything in our power to make sure that day is absolutely wonderful for you."
Mentioning the worries that family members often express in regard to sending their veterans on the one-day trip far from home, Fitzgerald stressed that medical care is always accessible on Honor Flight. There will be 12 medical personnel on the trip along with five AEDs and medical kits. A guardian will be assigned to each veteran and will be responsible for watching over the veteran during the trip. And wheelchairs will be available for any veteran who needs one.
"We promise we're going to return your veteran safer, happier and younger," Fitzgerald said, getting a laugh from the audience.
The day will start with a flight to Reagan National Airport on a Boeing 757. The veterans will then be transported in five coach buses to visit the World War II memorial, and then the Arlington National Cemetery and Iwo Jima Memorial. The veterans will participate in a special ceremony at their memorial.
Max Bennett, Honor Flight vice president, urged the veterans to keep themselves healthy for their flight.
"Please stay healthy," he said. "It's very sad when a veteran can't make the trip because they have gotten sick or they've passed away. We want you to have your trip. We want to honor you for this one day."
Bennett also told the veterans that the trip will bring back memories - some they want to remember, and others that they may not.
"You may feel like crying. Or, you may want to tell a buddy that's there a story about something that happened and that you can't tell your family about because they don't get it," he said. "We're going to bring back memories."
Honor Flight does not accept donations from veterans. The trips are paid for by community and corporate donations.
"You paid your dues," Fitzgerald said to the veterans. "Your community rent is paid in full. You paid that a long time ago and we want to honor that. This is a small token of our appreciation for your service and sacrifice."
Prior to the orientation, veterans were given information packets. They signed an Honor Flight poster and had their official photographs taken.
While waiting in line, Kecia Pierce, granddaughter to W.C. Ford Jr. of Lineville, appeared just as excited as her grandfather about the trip. Pierce will travel on Honor Flight as a guardian, providing one-on-one care to a veteran on the trip.
"I cried. The hair on the base of my neck stood up when they called and said my grandfather was going on Honor Flight," she recalled.
Though filled with plenty of emotion and excitement, the trip isn't easy on guardians.
"I guarantee you, you are going to feel younger when you get back," Fitzgerald told the veterans. "But your guardians will be tired."
For more information on Honor Flight or to make a donation, check out its web site at www.honorflight.net.