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Honor Flight thanks Greatest Generation's veterans

WWII veterans enjoyed an Honor Flight from GSP airport on Sept. 12. WWII veterans enjoyed an Honor Flight from GSP airport on Sept. 12.

The old soldiers arrived before sunup.

Now in their late 80s and early to mid-90s, they don't sleep in.

Seven years after the first HonorAir flight took off from Asheville Regional Airport, on Sept. 23, 2006, the honorees have grown frailer. In heart and mind they're the same as then: Because everybody served, they saw no heroism in their service. The heroes, they say, as emphatically now as then, are the ones who did not come back.
A team of volunteers, through Honor Flight Upstate, was in place to serve the 90 veterans. At one-on-one coverage, guardians, medics, bus captains and coordinators would usher the veterans on and off the plane, through Reagan National Airport in Washington, on a tour of the monuments and back home.
Thursday, Sept. 12, was the day between Sept. 11 and Friday the 13th. The only goal was to make it one of the best days in the lives of men and women who had lived some 33,000 days.

'What little they said'

Bertie Hancock Willis of Simpsonville, S.C., brought her husband, Joe E. Willis, to the airport. He served in the Army, in England, toward the end of the war and saw less combat than Bertie's identical twin brothers, Harris and Harold Hancock. The war was the first time they had ever been apart. One of them served aboard a landing craft that ferried soldiers and Marines to the shores of the islands in the brutal and deadly Pacific fighting.
"It broke my heart," that brother told her. "They didn't want to go but I was following orders."
The other brother told of how he and a buddy were running to a bomb shelter during an air raid. He heard a loud explosion and turned around; there was nothing left. He dug around and found his buddy's dogtags, to send to the family.
There were not many stories.
"It was interesting to hear what little they said about it," she said.

Making connections

Because of construction at the Greenville airport, the Honor Flight departure and landing site was moved to the North Cargo field. That meant the veterans had to be escorted or pushed in wheelchairs up the zigzag ramp. Doing most of the pushing was Paul Hobbs, a fit 30-year-old who would need the power of his calves and quads to push 40 to 50 wheelchairs. I asked where his help had gone.
"I think they're all in the plane getting their drinks," he said with a laugh, and then he got ready to push again.
"All right, here we go," he told his next charge. "We got a couple of really tight turns here."
Hobbs' story is one of close to a hundred stories on this flight alone, repeated on these trips across the U.S. The owner of a small commercial cleaning company, Hobbs knows Honor Flight Upstate coordinator Paul Howell from church. He got interested in helping and here he was, working the ramp job.

'New aircraft smell'

The 300th HonorAir charter featured several special additions.
The jetliner, an Airbus A321, was brand new. It had come off an assembly line in France eight days earlier.
"It has that new aircraft smell," the pilot said from the cockpit.
Chuck Allen, the managing director of government affairs for US Airways, was
on the flight because of his long association with HonorAir. And because Allen was on board, veterans got to hear the story of how Jeff Miller, a dry cleaner from Hendersonville most had never heard of, started HonorAir seven years before. Miller's uncle, Harold B. Drake, was killed on June 16, 1944, in a B-24 crash. Jeff's parents, Bert Miller and Kathryn Drake Miller, died before they got a chance to see the memorial.
"Like many of you they both served in the war, and were very patriotic and wanted to see something created for the heroes of the greatest generation," Allen said on the public address system when the Airbus was aloft. "They passed away and he was going through all their papers he learned that they were charter members (of the National World War II Memorial Foundation) and they never had the chance to see their memorial. So he thought that there were probably other veterans in Hendersonville and Henderson County that were in the same situation: They had never seen the memorial and would like to do it.
"So Jeff put together a small team of people who wanted to take the veterans to Washington to see the memorial and not have to pay for any of it."
Miller's friend Tom Apodaca, the state senator, knew Allen, who is a lobbyist for the airline. The senator suggested that Miller call Allen.
"I was fortunate to be the one that he called," Allen said, "and I can tell you the first call I'm not sure we talked about charters and things of that nature. We talked about our dads because both of our dads were veterans. My dad was a veteran of the Navy; he served in the Pacific theater. For the first hour and a half all I recall of the first telephone call was talking about our dads, and how wonderful they were."
On Saturday, Sept. 23, 2006, the first HonorAir flight took off from Asheville Regional Airport, followed by HonorAir flight no. 2 the next day.
Allen shared a lot about his dad but he kept something else secret as the maiden HonorAir flight approached.
His father-in-law, John Bott, was a World War II veteran who lived in Arden. Allen and his wife and had scheduled Bott for the second flight.
"I didn't tell Jeff because I didn't want him to treat him any differently and I knew he would," he said. "It was the greatest experience of his life."

Although more Honor Flights are scheduled, they're on the downward arc. The number of WWII veterans, 16 million when the war ended and less than 1 million today, is dwindling by the day.
When the Airbus landed in Washington, the veterans plunged into the big celebration at Gate 38. When they emerged from of the jetway, the veterans were greeted by hundreds of well-wishers, a concert band and a red, white and blue balloon arch.
From there they boarded four charter buses for the first leg of the tour, to the World War II memorial.
"It's fabulous," said Don Fluet, who served 31 years in the Navy, Air Force and Army. "If they hadn't have done this I wouldn't have seen Washington. I've seen pictures but pictures are not seeing it. There's no way a picture can show it.... In a way I'm lucky. I'm not crippled in any way. I've slowed down a lot."

James "Bo" Brown, a 91-year-old veteran who fought in the Fifth Army from Africa to Italy, stood by the Pacific theater pillar and looked out at the memorial. He still marveled at the airside reception.
"I think everybody was wonderful," he said. "How many people were in that line? Three-hundred?"
He served until 1945 and returned to Spartanburg.
"I wanted to come home because I had a bride waiting for me," he said.
At the World War II memorial is another tour of veterans, this one from Chicago.
Thanks to the Honor Flight network, cofounded by Miller and Earl Morse, the Chicago branch has flown 4,500 veterans on 51 trips to Washington.
"He's pretty much a rock star," Mary Pettinato, the director of Honor Flight Chicago, said of Miller. "As a matter of fact I want him to talk to the veterans."
She asked Miller to step on board the buses for an introduction. He deflected the credit back to the veterans. "Everything good I have is because of you," he always tells veterans.

'The least we can do'

From sea to sea, one community after another, large and small, urban and rural, has successfully adopted the HonorAir (or Honor Flight) program. In Greenville it costs roughly $500 per veteran for each flight; guardians pay their own way, $400 each. Only a few specialists — there's always at least one doctor and several medics — ride free. The further from Washington the veterans are, the more the operation costs. San Diego has the longest waiting list, Miller said. Those trips involve an overnight stay in Washington, and a total cost of $150,000.
Marvin P. Pope Jr., a Superior Court judge from Asheville, is one of the guardians on last week's trip. He's a floater, making sure every veteran is cared for and trouble-shooting, though there's remarkably little trouble on an HonorAir flight. Judge Pope has been on two or three flights out of Asheville. This was his 11th flight out of GSP. Yet his answer when someone asks how many times he's flown is: "Not enough."
"It's been the most wonderful experience," he said. "These veterans came back and wouldn't take any credit for what they did. They saw things people shouldn't see and lived experiences people shouldn't have to live. They didn't talk about it. They didn't consider themselves heroes. This is the least we could do."
Someone asked Miller why HonorAir has worked.
"It's a very easy sell," he said. "There was no disagreement about the war. You had a tyrant and a dictator on both sides trying to annihilate people. Everybody's father or grandfather had something to do with World War II."
Once the flights began, people saw stories in newspapers and on television — the first flight was featured on CBS's Sunday Morning — people immediately connected.
"They bought into giving those guys a trip to see their memorial," Miller said.
Harry Hill was in college when the war started. Commissioned as an ensign in the Navy, Hill became a lieutenant junior grade at Pearl Harbor, shipping supplies to Midway Island and other islands in the Pacific. A college roommate who became a captain in the Marine Corps was killed at Iwo Jima.
"I wanted to see Washington," Hill said. "It's one of the few places I didn't get a chance to go to."
A retired probate attorney from Madison, Wisc., Hill will be 91 on Sept. 30. He lives in a retirement community in Asheville.
"That reception when we landed, I'll never forget it," he said. "I heard something about it but it was much bigger than I thought."

'Thank you, Grandpa'

An airline pilot or first officer often says a few words from the cockpit, professional but impersonal, about the weather conditions, knots per hour, altitude. The 300th HonorAir flight had one more treat the veterans weren't expecting.
Jason Hucks, an Honor Flight Greenville coordinator, explained over the speaker that Kristi Munn, a first officer for US Airways, heard that her granddad, Richard McAbee, was going on the flight. Hucks said he was trying to figure out how they could get her on board to ride. "She one-upped me and arranged to fly us home," he said.
"I'm very proud of you," Munn said from the cockpit. "Thank you very much for your service. I love you very much and without you and everyone on this aircraft, all of you World War II veterans, you make it possible for us to do what we do. Thank you, Grandpa, and thank you all you veterans on the aircraft."

Welcome home

Soon the flight landed at Greenville-Spartanburg airport. The 300th Honor Flight trip went into the books. The greeting was not quite as it had been in Washington. It was dark and the hundreds of cheering well-wishers stood a hundred yards away, held back by a chain-link fence surrounding the cargo airfield.
Still, the Woodmont High School band played. A Marine sergeant saluted each veteran as he or she came down the ramp. Twenty-five Greenville County sheriff's deputies lined up to greet them. As they came out of the small cargo terminal office, the old soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were surrounded and cheered once more by a swarm of clapping, whistling and hooting people, loved ones and strangers. Sixty American flags lined the drive outside the terminal. A little girl held a sign in red, white and blue lettering that said "Proud great-granddaughter of a World War II Veteran."
As they had in the early glow of the day, during the welcome at Gate 38 and at the random words of thanks from strangers all day at memorials in Washington, the veterans nodded and smiled. They accepted the gratitude of a nation that was, if long delayed, heartfelt and emphatic.