With less than ten percent of World War II veterans still alive and more passing away each day, a group from Indiana has flown as many as they can over the past few years to see their war’s memorial in Washington, D.C.
But with fund raising slowing due to the economy and an ever-shrinking pool of veterans healthy enough to travel, the service has decided to shut down.
The Greatest Generation is perhaps airport security’s greatest challenge. Artificial knees, hips, defibrillators set off these metal detecting wands like a minefield. Its 6 o’clock in the morning, and Donald Cooter from Spencer Indiana, will soon board his first plane since returning from war.
“It’s going to bring back a lot of memories, people I served with and lost their lives. I see some with wheelchairs. But we’re being taken care of real well. It’ll be a tiring day. But we’ll sleep tomorrow,”
Cooter will spend the day, along with nearly 100 other vets from the region, in Washington, D.C. visiting sites many have only seen on postcards until now.
There was ticker tapes parades that we all saw on TV and the newsreels at the end of World War II. But that was only for a few. They’re going to experience something today, a welcome, that they’ve never experienced before.
That’s Mike Pate. Dollar by dollar, he helped raise the $65,000 needed to charter the 737 for the trip.
Flight organizer John Tilford says finding donors to cover the veterans’ costs — who go for free — has been a slow march recently…that’s only been complicated by the fragility their health.
“People are generous, but it gets a little bit old. If I’m having to struggle to get applicants and struggle to get money, then maybe its time to close the books on the operation. I have absolutely no pending or standby World War II veterans now. Most of these have passed away already. And of those remaining alive, most can’t travel. If you don’t think about it too soon, its going to be too late.”
As soon as the vets step off the plane, a crowd forms and bombards them with cheers and salutes – this happens more than a few times during the day. But the fanfare is short-lived, as a 91-year old vet collapses in the middle of Reagan National Airport. While a vet died during the group’s last flight, this former infantryman spends the day in the hospital… as the rest of the group buses off to their memorial.
Veteran Ralph Cohen of Kansas City, who flew in on another honor flight, approaches a fountain with battles of the Pacific Theater etched in concrete.
“When I look at Okinowa, I know my cousin died on Okinawa. So it’s emotional. I didn’t think it was much of a big deal before I got here Just the memory, I can’t really say much more,” Cohen said.
Some cry at the memorial, some tell jokes and others simply get their picture taken and climb back on the tour bus. When the memorial was completed in 2004, a majority of the Greatest Generation had already died – and during the trip, many vets remark they wish it had been built sooner.
University of Evansville History Professor and war memorials researcher James MacLeod says the monument is detached from the realities of the conflict and was not necessarily built for the ever-disappearing World War Two veteran.
“It reflects, in many ways, the America public attitude from World War II that was always divorced from reality. That’s a memorial that talks about the big words of war patriotism, nation, honor and glory in ways that might make folks that send people to war happy, but do they really make people that go to war feel good about it, I’m not so sure,” MacLeod said.
Regardless of the vets’ reactions, Tilford says, the trip is often the last traveling many will do in their lives – and for that, they’re thankful.
As the plane lands back home again in Indiana, a bagpipe band joins a flag-waving crowd of hundreds on the tarmac. For many, it’s the kind of welcome home they never received after the war. One of the first off the plane was the 91-year old infantryman, who against doctor’s advice, flew back – determined, he said, not to be the first soldier these vets left behind.