A stroke makes it difficult for Ernie Harris to speak, but it does not prevent him from conveying the emotional effect he experienced last month when he made an Honor Flight to Washington D.C.
Harris, 85, attended the flight with fellow veteran Tom Sloan and Harris’ nephew Karl Helms, who served as his uncle’s “guardian” during the trip. When Harris was asked how he enjoyed the trip, his eyes lit up and his whole face became a big grin. He nodded his head and sat up straighter in his wheel chair.
The World War II monument was his favorite part, he communicated with Helms’ help.
“I think the only time he slept was on the way back to Farmington at 3:30 a.m., Helms said.
Sloan was more pensive when asked his favorite part of the trip.
“Since I was in the Korean Conflict, I guess the Korean Memorial was the best,” Sloan said.
While Sloan is ambulatory, Harris is one of the many World War II veterans who make the trip in a wheelchair. The organizers of the event, however, ensure that all veterans, regardless of disabilities, have a wonderful experience.
According to Harris and Helms, that effort was an outstanding success.
Retired Air Force Captain Earl Morse created the Honor Flight Network program to honor the veterans he had taken care of for 27 years as a physicians assistant. After retiring from the Air Force in 1998, he worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs in a clinic in Springfield, Ohio.
The World War II Memorial was completed in May 2004, and Morse’s patients, most of whom were in their 80s, often talked about visiting “their” memorial. But unfortunately, most said they could not afford the trip. Morse offered to fly one of them to Washington D.C., at no charge. Other pilots began to help and the idea spread to other states.
In 2005, Morse and Jeff Miller of North Carolina worked together to start a nonprofit organization, called the Honor Flight Network. Participating pilots had two stipulations: They would pay aircraft rental (an estimated $600 to $1,200 per day) and they would personally escort the veterans around the city for the day.
The first Honor Flight included six planes that flew out of Springfield, Ohio, in May 2005. Three years later, Southwest Airlines joined the effort by donating thousands of tickets. Gradually, the program grew, and by the end of 2011 more than 81,000 veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam had taken Honor Flights to see the memorials built in their honor. Of those, 18,055 traveled in 2011.
Top priority is given to World War II veterans and veterans with a terminal illness. Based on 2011 statistics, approximately 900 World War II veterans die each day. After the World War II veterans receive flights, efforts will then focus on our Korean War and then Vietnam War veterans. However, some Honor Flight groups currently accept applications from Korean and Vietnam Veterans.
Veterans from the Parkland area make the trip through the Franklin County Honor Flight, Inc., a non-profit organization formed in 2007 in Union, Mo. They may apply themselves or others may nominate them for the trip.
The April trip
The trip Harris and Sloan made took place April 25. According to the Franklin County Honor Flight organizers, they have flown more than 929 World War II veterans to Washington D.C. to see the World War II Memorial.
“We left here at midnight for Washington, Missouri,” Helms said. “The bus left Washington at 2:30 a.m. for the airport. The Highway Patrol escorted us.”
At the airport, the veterans enjoyed ham and cheese sandwiches and drinks. The Southwest Airlines flight left at 5:15 a.m. It was the first time Harris — an anti-aircraft gunner in World War II — and Helms had been on a commercial flight. During the flight, veterans sang patriotic songs, including “God Bless the U.S.A.” Some of the other passengers joined in.
The plane landed at Baltimore Washington International Airport, where they were met with a warm greeting.
“They were the first to board and the last to get off during both flights,” Helms said. “That way, the other passengers were able to help greet them.”
Helms was worried that his uncle would have problems boarding the busses and planes. His worries were unnecessary.
“They just picked him up and put him in a seat,” Helms explained. “The respect they got on the trip, you couldn’t ask for better.”
The weather was perfect for the visit. The temperature ranged from the low 60s in the early morning to the mid 70s and the sky was clear.
The men headed to the World War II Memorial, which they found awe inspiring.
“The memorials were fabulous,” Sloan said. “I would recommend anyone who can go there, go see them.”
The World War II Memorial includes 24 bronze bas-relief panels that provide glimpses into the human experience at home and at war. They include familiar black and white photographs and newsreels. Dozens of battle names and military campaign designations are carved into stone. A wall of 4,048 Gold Stars silently pays tribute to the more than 405,000 Americans who lost their lives in the war.
The 56 granite columns make two half-circles that frame the Rainbow Pool and its fountains. They symbolize the wartime unity among the 48 states at the time, seven federal territories, and the District of Columbia. Bronze ropes tie the columns together, and bronze oak and wheat wreathes represent the nation’s industrial and agricultural strengths.
Two 43-foot tall pavilions celebrate the American victory on the Atlantic and Pacific fronts. The famous “Kilroy was here” graffiti is part of the memorial.
Visitors may search The World War II Registry, a computerized database honoring Americans who helped win the war, either overseas or on the home front.
The Korean War Memorial is a circle intersected by a triangle. The triangular Field of Service is a group of 19 stainless-steel statues that depict a squad on patrol and evokes the experience of American ground troops in Korea. Strips of granite and scrubby juniper bushes illustrate the rugged Korean terrain and the windblown ponchos are a reminder of the harsh weather.
A granite curb on the north side lists the 22 countries of the United Nations that sent troops or gave medical support in defense of South Korea. A black granite, polished surface on the south side mirrors the statues. The etched mural is based on actual photographs of unidentified American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.
The adjacent Pool of Remembrance, encircled by a grove of trees, includes a stone etching of the numbers of those killed, wounded, missing in action, and held prisoner-of-war. Another granite wall bears a message inlaid in silver: Freedom Is Not Free.
The men also visited the Iwo Jima and other memorials. In the afternoon, they went to Arlington National Cemetery to watch the changing of the guard at the Tom of the Unknowns. They also toured the Roosevelt Memorial before heading back to the airport. Throughout the day, they were greeted by supporters, including school children who greeted them at the Baltimore Airport.
“It was a wonderful flight,” Sloan said. “The people who looked after us were great.”
Veterans who would like to participate in an Honor Flight may apply locally – or be nominated by someone else – online athttp://www.franklincountyhonorflight.org. Or, contact the Honor Flight Network at 937-521-2400 or by email@example.com.
Paula Barr is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 172 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.