The Honor Flight Network flies World War II veterans, free of charge, to Washington, DC to visit the memorial built in their honor.
By Jane Hess Collins
The mood was electric at Reagan International Airport on Wednesday evening, March 10. An archway of yellow balloons framed gate 30B as hundreds of people waved small American flags. Suddenly, the Falls Church Concert Band, seated in the waiting area, burst into “Stars and Stripes Forever” as the VIPs emerged from the plane. Who deserved all of this fanfare? U2? The New Orleans Saints? Brad and Angie?
The mystery guests were none other than the Greatest Generation – World War II veterans flown into Washington, DC from Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, New York, and Orlando to attend a screening of HBO’s “The Pacific” and to view the National WWII Memorial.
Over 1,000 World War II veterans die each day. The survivors, the youngest of them in their 80’s, have waited over 60 years to have a memorial dedicated to them. Now, with the National WWII Memorial opening in April 2004, many of these veterans are financially or physically unable to travel to Washington, DC to see it.
Enter the Honor Flight Network, a non-profit organization that funds flights for WWII and any terminally ill veteran to Washington, DC to see the memorials built to honor their sacrifices. (For this particular event, Morse said that American Airlines and Marriott International donated the flight and hotel stay as part of the HBO event).
“Getting them to their memorial, that’s the least that we can do,” said Honor Flight Network founder Captain (retired) Eric Morse, United States Air Force. “World War II veterans collectively and literally saved the world. All of Europe is free. All of the Pacific is free. And they made that happen.”
“Most of these veterans were occupation forces who didn’t come home until six to nine months after the war was over,” Morse continued. “As one veteran told me, ‘They quit having parades when we came home.’ After 60 years, they are finally getting that welcome.”
WWII veteran Edward Norton, who served under General Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific theater, was touched by the well-wishers who greeted him. “I was surprised to see the reception you people have given. That is fantastic,” he said. “It really, really touches me. I mean, I’m not one to be that way, you know?”
Spry and playful at age 86, Norton credits his wife of 60 years for his good health. His secret to marital success?
“Yes, dear,” Norton advised mischievously.
Morse, a former Air Force paramedic and licensed pilot, got the idea in December of 2004 when he offered to fly a World War II veteran, free of charge, to Washington, DC, to view the memorial. The veteran cried in gratitude. Then Morse offered to fly another WWII veteran to the memorial, and that veteran also broke down and sobbed in thanks.
Morse had found his calling. He asked his fellow pilots to help out, and the Honor Flight Network’s maiden voyage took off – literally – in May 2005.
The Honor Flight Network does not accept donations from WWII veterans, and instead relies on contributions from other individuals and organizations. Impressively, nearly 93% of their budget goes toward direct veteran support such as buying airline seats for the trip to nation’s capitol, deluxe tour bus service with wheelchair accommodation once they have arrived, tee shirts, meals and other amenities.
Nor does the Honor Flight Network spend on advertising. “If someone gives us $5,000 we’re going to spend it on airline seats,” Morse said.
Flying and transporting the greatest generation does take some special care. Trained guardians, who pay their own way, personally escort the veterans onto the aircraft and accompany them to the memorials throughout the day. (Medical attendants are not provided.) Airsep Corporation donates portable oxygen concentrators for the veterans while in flight, while Lincare provides oxygen tanks for the veterans once they have landed.
Morse also commended the volunteers who meet the veterans at the airport, calling them “the other great heroes.” Though most of them work full time, Morse acknowledged that they “somehow find the time to organize hundreds of other volunteers to give these veterans the welcome and appreciation they never received.”
The Honor Flight Network has made it possible for over 36,000 veterans of WWII (along with some veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars) to view the memorials dedicated to them. But “we’re rapidly running out of time,” said Morse. “We have over 9,000 World War II veterans on our ‘anxiously waiting’ list and sadly, about 800 of them have died actually waiting their turn.”