By Chester Campbell
Tom Brocaw may have exaggerated a bit when he called those who fought in World War II "The Greatest Generation," but if nothing else, they were a resilient lot. They left the battlefields and the canon-blasted skies to steer America onto an unparalleled path of progress. Of the 16,000,000 men and women who donned uniforms in the early 1940's, only about two million remain. It is estimated that they're dying off at the rate of 1,000 a day.
Back in January of 2005, a physician's assistant and retired Air Force captain who was now taking care of veterans for the Veterans Administration, began looking for a way to give World War II veterans a chance to see their new memorial, which had just been opened in Washington, DC. A private pilot who belonged to a large aero club in Dayton, OH, he gathered a group of fellow pilots who agreed to fly veterans to the capital free of charge. The first mission that year took twelve veterans in six small planes. It was a great success.
The movement grew rapidly and began using commercial aircraft. Other communities were interested, and the Honor Flight Network was created. Groups in cities throughout the national are involved now, and at the end of 2010, more than 63,000 veterans had been flown to see the World War II Memorial at no cost to them.
I had the privilege of joining the second Music City Honor Flight a week ago. A chartered U.S. Airways Airbus A320 left Nashville after breakfast with 102 World War II veterans, plus a guardian (escort) for each three, a nurse and a physician. The breakfast was served from tables set up in the U.S. Airways gate area and included entertainment by a country music band. The State Adjutant General and the State Commissioner of Veterans Affairs were there to see us off.
We were divided into red, white and blue groups, and after landing at Reagan National Airport, we boarded group buses for the ride through Washington to the World War II Memorial. It sits between the towering Washington Monument and the impressive Lincoln Memorial. Designed in an elliptical shape, the memorial features a pavilion at each end, one commemorating the war across the Atlantic, the other the war across the Pacific. Tall pillars fan out from the pavilions representing the U.S. states, territories and District of Columbia. At the center on one side is the Freedom Wall, 4,000 gold stars honoring the more than 400,000 Americans who gave their lives in the war. A pool of water with towering fountains at each end fills the inside of the ellipse.
After wandering about the massive structure, now maintained by the National Park Service, we boarded the buses for the drive back across the Potomac River, where we viewed the Marine Corps Memorial. It features a large sculpture representing the flag-raising at Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. From there we stopped at the new Air Force Memorial, dedicated in 2006. Its soaring steel spires represent the "bomb burst" maneuver performed by the Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team.
Our Washington visit ended at Arlington National Cemetery, where we watched the solemn, precision ceremony known as Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I filmed most of the ceremony with my camcorder. You could set your watch by the movements of the guards as they march twenty-one steps, turn facing in the direction of the tomb, pause, do an about face, pause, switch their rifle to the opposite shoulder, turn again and repeat the march. At change time, the Sergeant of the Guard comes out with the relief soldier, faces the audience and shouts a brief greeting, including instructions for total silence. He salutes the tomb, then gives marching orders for the guards to change roles.
We boarded our flight back home, filled with memories of the day and the fellow veterans we had met. On landing in Nashville, we were greeted outside the gate area by a throng of people who formed a walkway for us to move into the terminal. They were decked out in red, white and blue and called out "thank you for your service." Many of them were school-age kids, some bearing cardboard signs.
If you know of a World War II veteran who would like to take part in this program, taking a no-cost trip to Washington to view the memorials, they can fill out an application at Honor Flight.com.