Veterans Honor Flight To Washington, D. C.
Along with a planeload of other WW II veterans, I was treated to one of the most enjoyable days of my life. I flew on a WW II Veterans Honor Flight from the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport to the Baltimore/Washington Airport. While flying at 37,000 feet, I watched the beautiful Tuesday, November 1st sunrise. Our Honor Flight was on an A-320 Airbus operated by Allegiant Air. When our Airliner taxied for takeoff at 6:00 am it was still dark and the airfield fire truck crews drove their trucks near the takeoff runway and flashed their emergency lights in our honor.
The previous Saturday, we assembled in St. Petersburg near the airport for a very comprehensive briefing by the Honor Flight, West Central Florida (WCF) organization. We were given new tan knit shirts, matching baseball caps, and a small carryon bag with our name prominently displayed on the bag through a plastic see-through pocket. Upon arrival for the briefing, each veteran was met and escorted through the entire check in process. We were then taken to our assigned tables and listened to a most informative pre-flight briefing. A Boy Scout Troop led the Pledge Allegiance and a talented all girl’s choir from a local High School sang several beautiful patriotic songs. A Santa Claus Honor Guard marched in wearing complete Santa Claus suits and each carrying an Armed Service flag, plus a black POW flag. A nine year old boy who had personally raised $40,000 to help support our flight was introduced. Each flight costs about seventy five thousand dollars, all raised from donations and none from any government agency. We were told over 2000 veterans had participated in the WCF Honor Flights. The bus drivers and the bus captains who would fly with us were introduced.
We were informed that each veteran would be assigned a personal “Guardian” who would be with us during the entire day in Washington D. C and return to Florida with us. The Guardians all given light green shirts. The cost for each Guardian was $400. My personal guardian was my wife Clara’s daughter, Stacy Scott. I sent a check to pay her $400, but it was voided and returned to me as the WCF Honor Flight organization is expressly forbidden to accept any money, in any form, from any veteran. I guess we could really call that ‘getting a free ride’. For the veteran, it was! We were also provided and asked to wear a small, specific colored, flat pouch, suspended around our neck with a government picture ID (like a drivers license) and our name in large print showing through the see-through plastic front of the pouch. The purpose of that pouch was to get us through Airport Security quickly and, upon arrival in Baltimore, to get us on our assigned bus for the entire day. There were four large and very comfortable tour buses waiting for us at the Baltimore airport terminal. My pouch was red so, accordingly, I was assigned to the red bus for the entire day. A wheelchair with its distinctive yellow painted frame was shown to us. Eighty of those wheelchairs would be the only stowed Honor Flight baggage in the Airbus baggage compartment. The same wheelchairs were carried in our buses and used during our tour in Washington, then reloaded on the Airliner for returned to Florida.
Landing after daylight in Baltimore, our Airbus taxied toward the airport terminal, the airport fire truck crews welcomed and honored us by spraying a cascade of water over our ‘plane. After deplaning and boarding our bus, we proceeded on the Baltimore/Washington Parkway toward Washington. The trees along the Parkway were in full Fall Colors as they were all over the Washington area. Our bus driver was very knowledgeable about the history of Washington. For instance, he explained the ‘The District’ was divided into four quadrants, NE, SE, SW and NW. Further, that President John Quincy Adams, used to go skinny dipping in a canal near the White House. That canal no longer exists as it was filled and has been replaced by Constitution Avenue. When we passed by the Marine Barracks at 8th & I Streets NE, he explained that was where the U.S. Marine Band and the Marine Corps Silent Drill Team are stationed but, that the Marine Band responds only to the President Of The United States. That is why the Marine Corps Band will play at the Presidential Inauguration. Simultaneously, we passed the Naval Gun Factory, the oldest U.S. Navy Post that is still operating. We proceeded on to the beautiful new Air Force Memorial that has three soaring stainless tapered steel spires, extend almost vertically but, at the top, flare out in three different directions evoking contrails of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team. Part of the USAF Memorial beauty is its simplicity. The view from above, is down over the nearby Pentagon and of the city of Washington is truly awesome. The names of USAF Medal of Honor winners are etched in granite at the base of the memorial. I had the privilege of meeting one of those recipients years ago. It was Lieutenant Colonel “Jimmie” Doolittle who, on 18 April, 1942, led a fight of U.S. Army B-25 bombers from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and was the first to bomb Tokyo. We were served tasty box lunches before leaving the USAF Memorial.
Our next bus stop was at the WW II Memorial, probably the most important memorial of all for our Honor Flight veterans. It honors the 16 million Americans who served in uniform, of whom over 400,000 gave their lives. It also honors the many millions who supported the war effort on the home front. It celebrates American spirit, national unity, and victory. Twin Atlantic and Pacific pavilions symbolize a war fought across two oceans. Inscriptions at the base of each pavilion list key battles of WW II. Fifty six vertical pillars represent the wartime roll call of the nation. One for each State, Territory and the District of Columbia, showing unity in a common cause. The 56 pillars are placed right and left from the centered Freedom Wall that has 4000 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans who gave their lives in WW II. The pillars each has a metal oak and wheat wreath that symbolize the nation’s industrial and agriculture strength. The pillars alternate right and left from the field of stars, is based upon when that State entered the Union. Delaware was first. The WW II Memorial is placed between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial to reflect the importance of World War II in preserving the ideals won under George Washington and defended by Abraham Lincoln. We were all lined up for a group picture that shows the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool behind us.
We departed the World War II Memorial on our buses and drove to the Lincoln Memorial where we stopped and visited the adjacent Vietnam Wall Memorial, “The Wall” that contains the names of over 58,000 dead or missing members if the armed forces. One end of The Wall points to the Washington Monument, and the other end to the Lincoln Memorial. Using the alphabetical register of names of those killed in Vietnam, I found the name of William Tebow, a close friend with whom I flew helicopters in combat during the Korean War. After Korea, Captain ‘Bill’ Tebow transitioned back to flying fighter ‘planes. While flying his F-4 Phantom jet one night he crashed into a mountain near DaNang, Vietnam.
We also visited the nearby Korean War Veterans Memorial. A plaque in front reads: OUR NATION HONORS HER SONS AND DAUGHTERS, WHO ANSWERED THE CALL TO DEFEND A COUNTRY THEY NEVER KNEW AND A PEOPLE THEY HAD NEVER MET. The memorial consists of a circle intersected by a triangular wall that contains sandblasted photographic images of troops from land, sea and air during the Korean War. Nineteen stainless steel soldiers are moving across an open field, each over seven feet tall. It is a moving tribute to our Korean War Veterans. As one, I appreciated this tribute. On July 27, 1995 President Bill Clinton, and the female President of South Korea, Kim Young Sam, dedicated this Memorial honoring the 1.5 million Americans who served in the Korean War.
Many of our Honor Flight veterans opted to visit the Lincoln Memorial. It’s historical importance is so well known that I’m really not qualified to comment about it any further. It is too beautiful and it has so much historical importance that my written description and comments would be pitifully lacking. It is said that President Lincoln stood 6 feet, 4 inches in height, making him the tallest U. S President thus far. The Lincoln Memorial was built in 1922.
We boarded our buses at the Lincoln Memorial and drove uphill to the Marine Corps War Memorial. It is dedicated to all Marines who have died in defense of the United States. The memorial was inspired by photographer Joe Rosenthal’s famous picture depicting the raising of the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. The bronze figures stand thirty-two feet tall and occupy the same positions as the men in Rosenthal’s photograph, raising a cloth American flag that now flies over the memorial twenty four hours a day. On the granite base supporting the statue is a list of Marine Corps battles from 1775 through the Korea War. A famous quotation of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz is enclosed inside a round gold wreath on one side of the granite base. He said of his Marines and Sailors: UNCOMMON VALOR WAS A COMMON VIRTUE. Located at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, the memorial overlooks the Potomac River, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Pentagon and the United States Capitol. After driving completely around the Iwo Jima statue our bus drove through the ever expanding Arlington Cemetery where over 300,000 American Servicemen and other notables, including President John F. Kennedy, are buried. We rode slowly past The Pentagon Memorial, located in front of the section of the Pentagon that was struck by the American Airlines Flight 77 on 9 September 2011. It is a permanent outdoor, ground level memorial honoring the 184 individuals who lost their lives during the September 11 attacks. On September 11 each year the section of the Pentagon that was damaged is illuminated with blue lights and an American flag is flown over the area. From there our bus left the District. We proceeded to the Baltimore airport in the opposite direction we rode earlier that day. At the Baltimore airport we were provided with a light dinner before we boarded our Airbus for the flight back to Florida.
We received a very pleasant and surprise when ‘Mail Call’ was announced during the flight and each veteran received a large brown envelope filled cards and letters from people who just wanted to day thanks. Letters from Senator Bill Nelson from Florida, Representative Gus Bilirakis from the 12th Florida Congressional District and Kathy Castor, United States Representative from the 12th District were included. I received a handwritten letter from my daughter who lives in Louisiana. I don’t know how she was able to get her letter aboard that flight and into that ‘Mail Call’ envelope. My envelope also contained ten very cute handwritten thank you cards from grade school children who drew their own versions of the U.S. Flags and signed their first names. Some asked questions about my service experiences.
After landing back in St. Pete/Clearwater Airport my guardian, pushed my wheelchair up the jetway and into the airport terminal. I was absolutely astounded to see two long lines people waiting to welcome our Honor Flight back home. I would estimate that the number of those waiting in those lines numbered between three and four hundred. All expressed their thanks for our service Many carried large U.S Flags. A live band was playing and the well wishers included the Mayor of Clearwater, Junior ROTC units, Boy Scouts. Firefighters and Policemen in their dress uniforms and active duty troops from the Nearby MacDill Air Force Base. I can’t remember how many kisses I received from ladies waiting in those lines. That was very nice! Four, WW II ‘Bomber Girls’, dressed in khaki uniforms posed for a picture with each returning Honor Flight veteran. Passing through those lines of enthusiastic and just wonderful people took almost an hour. It was a perfect end to a most enjoyable day that I’ll never forget. GOD BLESS THE USA!