Originally published in the Aiken Standard, April, 23, 2012.
The youngest was 83. The oldest was 98. The average age was 88.
One hundred of the Palmetto State’s members of the Greatest Generation began to fill the Columbia Metropolitan airport before daybreak on Wednesday. They wore matching red jackets, and many donned black ball caps emblazoned with “World War II Veteran” in gold lettering.
The veterans were joining the Honor Flight of South Carolina, a network that started in 2008 under the guidance of restaurateur Bill Dukes, who was taking his 11th flight, including one he took with his WWII veteran father.
“It’s going to be a day that they’ll never forget. I know that for a fact,” he said.
As veterans awaited the boarding call, several active duty soldiers from nearby Fort Jackson made the rounds, shaking hands with the veterans and thanking them for their service.
“It’s a lot different now than then,” said Michael DeForest, who has served two tours of duty in the Middle East. “It’s a different war, but you still have that bond.”
As the plane was being boarded, passengers were given a light breakfast – a muffin, yogurt and banana – by the US Airways crew. The flight took to the air at approximately 8:05 and made the one-hour flight with very few bumps along the way.
All veterans were assigned a “guardian,” an individual who would serve as their escort and guide throughout the day. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) served as guardian for former Rep. Ed Young. Young, now 91, served as a fighter pilot in World War II.
“I’m just honored to be here to show my respect to World War II veterans, the Greatest Generation,” Wilson said. “And now we have the new Greatest Generation, serving our country in Afghanistan, Iraq and the global war on terror. So it’s an inspiration to me, it’s an inspiration to the American people and I can’t wait to see the monument with the veterans of South Carolina,” Wilson said in-flight.
Aiken’s Walter Chelchowski said he was looking forward to seeing the memorial dedications to both World War II and Vietnam, as he served in both.”Matter of fact, I was in Vietnam with my son,” he said. Chelchowski, who remembers vividly his March 10, 1943, draft date, flew in B-17 bombers in World War II. After the war, he stayed in the military for more than 30 years, where he worked in commissary services.
Arrival in D.C.
The plane touched down gently on the Reagan National tarmac. As the plane moved toward the gate, one of the flight attendants took to the intercom, thanking the veterans for their service and our freedom, adding, “You truly are the Greatest Generation.” She then went down the aisle, personally thanking each veteran.
When the plane landed, the dozen or so media members exited the plane first, to join the awaiting crowd in the Reagan National Airport.
As each veteran exited the jetway, the crowd cheered, many waving American flags and extending handshakes or offering hugs, while a barbershop quartet sang patriotic songs.Rosanne Grady, of Watertown, Mass., was on a layover in D.C. for a trip to Disney with her granddaughter, Emma. Emma stood smiling by the exit watching as the veterans emerged. “It’s really cool,” she said.
As they made their way into the terminal, one woman, Elizabeth Kirk, greeted the veterans with a kiss on the cheek. When asked who she kissed, her answer was simple: “Everyone.” And those veterans who asked for a second kiss on the cheek were, indeed, obliged.
Veteran Richard Damron, who now lives in York, was wowed by the reception.
“I didn’t deserve this,” he said with a disbelieving laugh. “It’s unbelievable.”Damron praised the professional efforts of all involved in the Honor Flight and was honored to be in the company of his fellow veterans.
“I’m just a poor farm boy from way back up in the hills of Oklahoma. I’m not used to things like this,” he said.
The veterans emerged from Reagan National and boarded four tour buses, which would take them to their first stop, the World War II memorial.
World War II memorial
The monument is immense – a large, white marble construction, with a spraying fountain in the middle of a sunken rotunda. The marble, mined in Chesterfield County, glistens from the sunlight.
Many paused in front of the fountain for a picture, ensuring the Washington Monument was in the background. The memorial is broken up by large partitions inscribed with the 50 state names. At the top of each partition, a metal wreath hangs.
The South Carolina veterans strolled the memorial, reading inscriptions and gathering under the South Carolina section for pictures. After about 15 minutes, they gathered in the center of the memorial. Four veterans, front row center, held a South Carolina flag. Among those were Ruby Madonna Galloway, the lone female veteran on the trip.
Dukes addressed the crowd, as onlookers gathered to watch.
“Over 70 years ago, you answered the call to serve your country. Today, we enjoy our freedom because of your answering that call,” Dukes said.
After a moment of silence for the 400,000 Americans lost in World War II, Dukes announced that the flag was going to be presented to the family of Ray Vogt from Oconee County. Vogt wanted to be one of the veterans on the Honor Flight but passed less than two weeks prior, at the age of 87.
Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Strong, with the president’s Marine Corps band, then sounded “Taps” on the bugle, as those gathered stood, right hands covering their hearts.
Chelchowski was moved by the memorial. “This is a beautiful place. I tell you, it’s well worth the money that they put into this thing. For guys like me that are gonna be gone in a year or two, you know, all these fellas here – half of ’em ain’t gonna be around next year.” Chelchowski stopped for a brief moment. “And that could very well include me.” After another brief pause, he adjusted his hat, dabbed his eye with a tissue and began to reflect again on his fellow veterans and the bond they share. “They’re all like me. They’re all strangers – until you see them. You’re a stranger, but you’re not.”
The other memorials
After a boxed lunch on the bus, the veterans were transported to their next stop – the trio of memorials of Korea, Vietnam and Lincoln.
The veterans spread out, often in groups of four or five, and strode the three memorials, which sit within maybe a quarter-mile of each other. As three veterans stood talking in front of one of the Korean statues, a young woman, wearing a black tank top and sporting a heavily tattooed left shoulder, approached the men and thanked them for their service. A few minutes later, the young woman was seen crying. Asked if it was in response to speaking to the veterans, she said it was and that she gets very emotional knowing the freedoms she has are because of those veterans. She declined to go be on camera, saying she was just too emotional.
Many of the veterans hiked the steep steps to stand before the statue of the seated 16th president. As Haskell Harbin of Seneca approached the statue, 4-year-old Levi Frank of Virginia Beach went toward the veteran and extended his hand. Harbin took the boy’s hand in both of his and spoke softly to him. Frank’s mother, Heather, said her husband is a Naval reservist, and she is proud to instill in her children a respect and honor for the nation’s veterans.
As they were leaving the Vietnam memorial, another trio of veterans was greeted with similar adoration. Darilynn Ehlen, visiting from Truckee, Calif., with her husband and grandson, stopped John Drafts and Raymond Caughman, both of Lexington, and Robert Carson of Williston. She first asked to take a picture but then willingly turned over the camera to a bystander when offered the chance to join the picture with the veterans. After the picture, she kissed each veteran on the cheek and thanked them.
Asked why she stopped the three men, Ehlen got choked up, paused and then said, “I’m sorry, it’s just very moving. It’s absolutely fabulous to be here and be able to shake their hands and tell them thank you.”
As a chilly rain set in, the veterans made their way back to the buses, where a short drive to the Iwo Jima memorial gave enough time for the sun to re-emerge.
In the shadows of monument, Navy veteran Richard Sejnost, from Hilton Head, chatted with active Navy petty officer second class Mike Gall. Decked in his dress blue uniform, Gall beamed as he heard stories from Sejnost’s time in the war.
Glancing down at Gall’s uniform, Sejnost saw a window to the past.
“It’s like looking at my old uniform. It hasn’t changed a bit in 75 years,” he said.
There was only time for a brief stop at the Air Force memorial, which features three towering spires that tower in the sky representing departing jets.
Arlington National Cemetery
Tour bus access to the Tomb of the Unknowns is granted “by exception only.” Four buses of World War II veterans are certainly an exception.
As they rode through the cemetery, the veterans gazed out the window at plush green fields dotted with neatly aligned white headstones. A tour guide at the front of the bus gave a history of the cemetery, peppering his talk with trivia (Did you know Joe Louis is buried next to Lee Marvin?) and pointing out graves of historical figures.
When the buses parked, Aiken’s Richard Witter was one of first off the bus. He headed up a path a short distance away to see the grave of Audie Murphy, the man Life magazine dubbed “The Most Decorated Soldier” in 1945. Murphy, who later became a film icon, received dozens of medals during his 27 months in Europe during World War II.
As Witter was viewing the grave, a class of middle schoolers approached. Visiting D.C. from California, the students of Las Flores Middle School were in awe of seeing a real, live World War II veteran.
“It’s great what you guys did for this country,” one said.
Witter noted to the students that he was a veteran of another profession as well – “retired high school principal, too!” – before receiving a round of applause from the students.
At the entrance of the rotunda that houses the Tomb of the Unknowns, Henry Fitzgerald of Elgin stood with Army specialist Jason Parson, stationed at Arlington. Parson had just led an impromptu ceremony to reissue Fitzgerald’s combat infantry badge, a medal he had earned by serving more than 30 days in combat but had fallen victim to the vacuum of time.
“We thought it would be right to reissue it because it was well deserved,” Parson said.
When asked if he thought it was special to have the badge reissued, Fitzgerald replied, “I tell you – it’s great.”
The Honor Flight members lined two sides of the viewing area at the Tomb of the Unknowns, watching with rapt attention as the soldiers conducted the Changing of the Guard ceremony, a crisp click of their heels at every turn. When the ceremony was complete, the veterans began to make their way back to the buses for the ride back to the airport. Veteran Damron – that “poor farm boy from way back up in the hills of Oklahoma” – had stopped, however, to talk with another group of students, these from Soldier Hollow Charter School in Midway, Utah.
The students stood in awed silence as Damron gave the school an uplifting speech on their future and how the world would rely on them, just as it had his generation.
“It’s going to be up to all of you. And I thank you – I feel honored just to say hi to everyone,” he said. The school’s principal choked back tears as he thanked Damron. Walking toward the bus a few moments later, Damron asked the small crowd walking with him if they would believe he used to be a motivational speaker.
“Used to be?” a reporter asked. “You still are.”
A hero’s welcome
Shortly after 5 p.m., the veterans began to file into Reagan National Airport to prepare for their flight home. It had been a long day. Eleven hours and six memorials later, the veterans were preparing for the sunset of their Honor Flight.
Granted, it would not be an Honor Flight without some pomp and circumstance. There, at the gate at Reagan National, was a swing band and a handful of swing dancers. At first, they mostly danced with each other as the veterans took respite in the gate’s black chairs. On occasion, however, one of the veterans would take a dance – usually with Mariane Rowland of Washington – and cut a rug.
Despite warnings of a possible bumpy return trip, the flight back was as smooth as could be. Several on the flight – veterans, guardians and media alike – dozed off high above the east coast.
After touching down in Columbia, they exited the plane, being greeted by Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell. Each veteran was given a personalized plaque that was made by the woodworking students at Richland Northeast High School.
As the veterans gathered for their exit, most had little idea what awaited them.
Gathered as a group, they turned a corner to head toward the long open pathway toward the front of the airport. There, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, waving American flags, stood throngs of people waiting to give them a well-deserved heroes’ welcome. The Fort Jackson band boomed patriotic music that filled the air. As the first veterans approached the crowds, cheers rang out. As they made their way into the crowd, walking down a pathway of American flags, some veterans smiled. Others cried. They shook hands, hugged strangers and greeted loved ones. Among those greeting the veterans were Walter Chelchowski’s son and daughter-in-law, who embraced the smiling veteran.
As the celebration engulfed the veterans, a chant arose from the crowd: “USA! USA! USA!” These American heroes – the Greatest Generation – were home.