Most of the American soldiers, airmen, Marines, and sailors who returned from World War II never got a tickertape parade. Many were met by family at a port, bus depot, or train station, where they were given a hug and gladly returned to their normal lives in the country they loved. But almost 70 years later, their fellow citizens are still finding ways to show their appreciation.
In September 2006, Miller had gathered enough donations from local businesses and citizens to charter two round-trip U.S. Airways flights that would take a total of 211 World War II veterans from Asheville, N.C., to Washington D.C. for a day-long tour of the war memorials. Upon their landing in the capital, they were greeted by a band before boarding buses that took them to the National World War II Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery to watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, Lincoln National Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Iwo Jima memorial, and the Air Force memorial.
The flights were funded entirely by donations from the local community – from individuals to Boy Scout troops that held fundraisers in front of grocery stores. When people found out what Miller’s group was doing for veterans, they literally reached into their pockets and gave whatever they could afford on the spot.
During his first trip with the group, Miller had arranged to meet Earl Morse, a private pilot who already had been taking veterans to the capital on a different scale – leading groups of small personal aircraft from Springfield, Ohio, with veterans as passengers. “He flew over to meet up with us and see what we were doing,” says Miller. That’s when we decided to combine our efforts, and we created the Honor Flight Network.”
Soon, Morse was buying blocks of seats on Southwest Airlines flights for veterans from his area. And with some key national news coverage, it wasn’t long before more similar regional organizations – under the Honor Flight umbrella – started popping up all over the country. Today, there are dozens of Honor Flight groups around the country.
Over the years, Miller has been involved with about 20 flights. He’s found financial and logistic support from individual citizens, the local Rotary club (which has drummed up funding for multiple flights), and corporate sponsors. He estimates that a single flight and tour out of Asheville Regional Airport costs about $60,000.
Not every state has a chapter, however. Under the Lone Eagle program, Honor Flight also makes arrangements for individual veterans who live in areas that have no regional chapter. They are flown to Washington and tour the memorials with groups from other regions. Honor Flight also recently started a program called TLC (Their Last Chance), which flies terminally ill veterans of other wars to Washington.
The Grand Tour
“It’s evolved so much since we started,” says Miller, whose tours land at Reagan National Airport, noting that the airport rolls out the proverbial red carpet for the arriving veterans. “When the plane arrives, it’s given a water cannon salute, and when the men get off the airplane, they are greeted by anywhere from 100 to 300 people cheering and waving flags. We have part of the National Symphony Orchestra’s brass section set up – they do that all on their own. “Then we take the veterans down to the coach busses, and we get a police escort to the World War II memorial.”
For the day, veterans are assigned support volunteers depending on their physical needs. For independently mobile veterans, Miller says there might be one volunteer assigned to three veterans. But wheelchair-bound veterans get one-on-one support.
“I can’t say enough about the way they treated us, from the reception that we got to the way they took care of us all the way through,” says Horace Flack, a World War II sailor who went on an HonorAir tour in 2006.
Flack still recalls his visit to Arlington National Cemetery very proudly. “We were there for the laying of the wreath ceremony, and two of our guys were able to participate. One had served in Patton’s 3rd Army, and I believe the other fellow was a Marine who was at Iwo Jima. They laid the wreath,” says Flack. “Some of the men were in wheelchairs, and they were given room up front so that they could see. It was a very moving moment.”
When the veterans return home that same evening, they are often greeted by crowds of family and supporters at their home airports. According to Miller, one flight that was sponsored by a local Borg-Warner factory had a couple thousand of the company’s employees waiting at the gate for the group’s arrival.
“That kind of ‘welcome home’ is the ‘welcome home’ that 99 percent of them never got when they returned from the war,” says Miller.
It’s that welcome home, the camaraderie of being with fellow veterans, and the continued recognition of their service that leave an impression on men like Flack.
“I’ve had veterans tell me that it gave them a reason to live,” says Miller. “I’ve had family members tell me that it added years to their grandfathers’ or fathers’ lives. And I’ve had some tell me that it helped them open up to their families about what happened to them [in the war] – things that they’d had bottled up all their lives.”
Running Out of Veterans
Sadly, Miller says that many local chapters of the Honor Flight Network are slowing down or consolidating their flights with other nearby chapters. It’s not that the local organizers are running out of donations, rather they’re running out of veterans. “Louisiana did more than 20 flights out of that state, but they’ve ceased operations. North Carolina’s last flight will be this Veteran’s Day, and I’ll be on that flight with them,” says Miller.
“We’re more on the tail end than the front end,” he says, “as some of these groups have run their course – and run out of veterans to serve in their area.”
“It’s really sad,” says Miller. “I keep up with these guys, and I’d say 30 percent of the ones I’ve taken to DC are gone now.” He says that he keeps a roster of the first 600 veterans that went to DC with him. “I put a red dot next to their name and write the date when I know that they passed away. There are way too many red dots beside those names.”
Still, as long as there are veterans who can make the trip, chapters of the Honor Flight Network are determined to make it happen. Miller’s Hendersonville chapter – that helped start the national network five years ago – recently joined with a chapter out of Simpsonville, S.C., in order to get a group of about 30 veterans together. Their flight went to the capital in November.
Writer’s note: If you would like to book an Honor Flight trip for a World War II veteran, visit the organization’s Regional Hubs map to find the group nearest to you. Donations can also be made to the Honor Flight Network or a local group.