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Feature Story

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Honor Flight

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Honor Flight Tennessee Valley

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Honoring heroes

More than 80 World War II veterans from the Tennessee Valley area recently flew to Washington, D.C., to see memorials built in honor of those who served. Boeing employees volunteered to help make the event possible.

Veterans observing the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.

Marc Selinger/Boeing

As the veterans observe the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C., volunteer-guardians hold up umbrellas to try to shield them from the hot sun.

As the Boeing 757 airliner arrived at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day weekend, it quickly became obvious this was no ordinary flight.

Trucks on the tarmac “saluted” by firing water into the air, creating an arc that the plane passed under as it moved toward Gate 38. A ground crew member directed the aircraft to the gate by motioning with American flags instead of the usual orange batons.

As the plane’s distinguished passengers entered the terminal, some wearing “World War II veteran” hats, they received a hero’s welcome: hundreds of people, most of them strangers, greeted them with handshakes, hugs and kisses. A six-piece band belted out stirring songs, and small children held up signs declaring, “Thank you for your service” and “You are our heroes.”

On May 29, a total of 86 World War II veterans from the Tennessee Valley flew to the U.S. capital – at no cost to them – to see for the first time the National World War II Memorial, which was completed six years ago to honor them and the other 16 million who served in the U.S. armed forces during the biggest military conflict in history. The trip also included visits to the Iwo Jima and Korean War memorials and Arlington National Cemetery, where veterans quietly watched the “Changing of the Guard” ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The veterans displayed little emotion throughout the day, in keeping with what is described as their view that no fuss should be made over them because they were just doing their duty when they battled tyranny in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters more than six decades ago. But they clearly appreciated the chance to visit the World War II Memorial and the other sites they might never have seen otherwise.

Veterans watch as a commander inspects the rifle of a sentinel

Marc Selinger/Boeing

Veterans watch as a commander inspects the rifle of a sentinel who will be guarding Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

“Next to Alabama football, this is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen,” said Arthur Alvin Jones Jr. of Decatur, Ala., standing in the vast plaza of the World War II Memorial, a mix of bronze, granite and waterworks on a 7.4-acre site on the National Mall. Jones was a B-17 and B-24 bomber navigator during the war.

Fredrick Ross of Hernando, Miss., a U.S. Marine veteran who survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, had a similar reaction.

“This is out of this world,” Ross said. “I heard about the memorial being built, and I didn’t ever think I was going to get here to see it. It’s hard to describe it, and it’s hard to say what your feelings are. It’s overwhelming.”

During the Pearl Harbor attack, Ross was reading a newspaper in his bunk when he heard machine gun fire overhead and ran outside. It looked like a drill at first, until a U.S. plane caught fire.

“We didn’t have any ammunition, so the only thing we could do was go down on the field and try to save as many planes as we could,” Ross recalled.

Safety and sympathy

The event, organized by the Tennessee Valley chapter of Honor Flight, a national nonprofit group that flies veterans to Washington, D.C., for a one-day tour of the monuments, was made possible by hundreds of volunteers, many of them Boeing employees. Some of the volunteers served as escorts or “guardians” for the veterans, most in their 80s and 90s. Guardians guided the veterans from site to site, made sure they had plenty of water and shielded them from the hot sun with umbrellas. They also provided a sympathetic ear as the veterans recalled their wartime experiences. 

“We wouldn’t be able to execute this program safely” without volunteers, said Joe Fitzgerald, president of Honor Flight Tennessee Valley. “Volunteers are necessary on many levels, but safety is first, second and third priority for us.”

The back of a volunteer-guardian’s shirt.

Marc Selinger/Boeing

The back of a volunteer-guardian’s shirt.

Volunteers had many reasons for giving up part of their holiday weekend, but all were motivated by a desire to thank those who defended freedom.

“I want to show my respect and honor the service that they gave,” said Allan Ferguson, a Boeing employee and Army veteran who volunteered with his father, Navy veteran Jim Ferguson.

Boeing employee Kelley Caudle, whose three uncles fought in the war, considered volunteering for Honor Flight events in the past. But when Caudle found out that some of the veterans for this flight were from north Alabama, where she grew up, she signed up without hesitation.

“I wanted to do it before, but I’ve always had something happen where I was out of town or something like that where I was never able to do it,” Caudle said. “But when I saw that they were coming in from home, I made sure I was in town, not out, made sure I wasn’t on a vacation somewhere.”

Boeing employee Cathy Harkness was too young to ask her great-grandparents about the war when they were alive, so volunteering for the event finally gave her a chance to hear firsthand accounts of the war.

“It is unbelievable to actually be next to these guys,” Harkness said. “This is your opportunity to ask those questions that you never get in a history book.”

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Chelsea Clark was among more than a dozen airmen who volunteered to greet the veterans at the World War II Memorial. Her grandfather, who passed away a year ago, was a World War II veteran, “and that’s why I’m here, that’s why I’m wearing the uniform.”

Great urgency

With over 90 chapters in 45 states, Honor Flight has transported tens of thousands of World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans to Washington, D.C., for free to see their respective memorials. But the urgency is greatest for the World War II veterans – of the 16 million who served in the U.S. armed forces during the war, less than two million are still alive, and 1,000 to 1,200 die each day, Fitzgerald said. Most of the living are too frail to travel to Washington.

Kim Kierstead

RAndy Jackson/Boeing

As volunteer "guardians" wait for the veterans to arrive at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., Kim Kierstead (white shirt, center), who coordinates Boeing’s involvement in Honor Flight activities, holds up a veteran's photograph to introduce him to his guardian.

“They’re dying at alarming rates,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s gotten to the point now where it’s almost too difficult from a health standpoint to carry these gentlemen and ladies to their memorial.”

Fitzgerald said “this was to have been our last flight,” but “we had such a response to the announcement that it was our last flight” that the chapter plans to fly World War II veterans to Washington on Sept. 11 to see the World War II Memorial and the Pentagon’s 9/11 memorial.

Boeing employee Ed Willits and his wife, Yvonne Willits, supported the May event and described it as unforgettable.

“Ed and I are honored to participate in this program, to share the special moments with our veterans as they visit their memorial and other monuments, and to give back to the veterans that gave so much for us,” Yvonne Willits said.

Since 2008, Boeing has provided nearly 400 employees and guests as Honor Flight guardians.

“Our Boeing employees are so proud to support such an important and worthwhile cause,” said Kim Kierstead, who coordinates Boeing’s involvement in Honor Flight activities. “Some of our volunteers have supported up to eight flights in the past couple of years, and are always so honored to be part of something so important.”