Local veterans visit Washington, D.C. for a day through Central Missouri Honor Flight program.
By Amy Wilsonfirstname.lastname@example.org
“We can’t all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they go by.” — Will Rogers
That is the motto of the Honor Flight Network — a non-profit organization created to honor the nation’s veterans by transporting them to Washington, D.C. to visit their memorials.
Several local World War II veterans made this trip Oct. 13 through the Central Missouri Honor Flight hub, but for at least two members of the Zack Wheat Legion Post 624, and likely more, it was not so much about them but about the friends and family who were lost to war.
“I keep thinking about the wall of stars,” Tom Porter said. After starting off matter-of-fact in describing the trip, he became emotional when he started talking about the World War II Memorial. “There were 4,000 gold stars — one for every 100 men who died. That’s a lot of heroes.”
Porter’s cousin, Vernon Graham, was one of those men represented by the stars. Serving in the Army, he was killed in the first year of the war, according to Porter who was then about 15 years old.
Porter later joined the Navy on Jan. 6, 1946.
Fellow World War II Navy veteran Ray Bassett said he felt dwarfed by the immensity of the memorial.
“I heard names of places I’ve heard before — Omaha Beach, Normandy, Guam. The toughest thing,” he said, pausing to collect himself, “is it makes you think about the times you had to leave your buddies back there and not see them again.”
But the trip was positive, Bassett said.
“I think it’s nuts. It’s been better than 60 years. I ought to have dealt with this by now,” he said. “But I think when we pulled away from Washington all of us, or at least most of us, were finding closures in one way or another. I wouldn’t have missed this trip for nothing.”
But the trip is also about recognizing the service of those who survived, and Honor Flight organizes crowds to cheer and thank the veterans all along their route for the day.
Bassett had thought he was prepared for the trip, watching videos of previous Honor Flights.
“I knew what was coming, but I still wasn’t ready for it,” Bassett said about all the people who greeted the veterans along their route from Columbia to St. Louis to Baltimore and back.
After flying into Baltimore, Md. and receiving an impressive water cannon salute from the fire department there, the main terminal of the airport was packed with people who were invited to come and greet the veterans but also with people going somewhere. As the veterans streamed in, the greeters began applauding them, shaking their hands, hugging them, thanking them.
“I lost it there,” Bassett said. “And the people going from point A to point B, when they finally caught on to what was happening and they joined in — I’ll never forget that.”
The memorial, Porter said, was fantastic.
“I couldn’t gather it all in,” he said. “There was a lot of people there. They came up and thanked us. One man had cards, beautiful thank you cards. It started ‘Dear hero’ and was thanking us for making it possible to live the life he does.”
Approached at the Baltimore airport on the way home by a middle-aged woman, Bassett said she thanked him for his service, saying she would not be here today if not for them. Asking her to explain, he said the woman was born in what she called a DP camp in Germany. U.S. soldiers liberated the camp.
“There were tears in her eyes,” Bassett recalled. “And I said, you feel liberated today too, and she said yes. It’s amazing where we go in life.”
On the way home, the veterans also got “mail call” as they did while in the service, receiving surprise letters from family and others who were asked to write. And at the end of the long day — it started about 2 a.m. that Tuesday with breakfast and ended after arriving back at the hotel about 1 a.m. Wednesday — both veterans were touched by the Freedom Riders — a group of veterans who travel around the country on motorcycles to honor their comrades. Despite a hard rain, as has often been the case in central Missouri this fall, the buses transporting the veterans back to Columbia from St. Louis were supposed to be met by the Freedom Riders on I-70 and be escorted back to their hotel. Because of the torrent of Mother Nature outside, the Honor Flight travelers thought this would likely be foregone — not so, said Porter.
About 15 miles outside Columbia, he said eight to 10 riders were waiting in the rain along I-70 with their red lights on for the buses. With the Highway Patrol blocking traffic in the passing lane, the small group of Freedom Riders passed the buses to lead them to the hotel where they joined the crowd waiting there to welcome the World War II veterans back.
“I shook hands with every one of them,” Porter said. “The trip was terrific. I’ve never seen anything better planned. Everything was taken care of. I’ll never forget it.”