Honor Flight to Washington evokes poignant memories
America's heroes walk a little slower these days, lean on canes or depend on wheelchairs.
Still stalwart soldiers at heart, though, they were quick to offer a hand and a smile as they moved through the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
The 71 veterans of World War II and the Korean conflict traveled April 27 on a chartered Honor Flight out of Port Columbus to Baltimore. Sponsored by Reynoldsburg for Honor Flight and the Gahanna school community, along with Honor Flight Columbus, the chartered flight included "guardians" who accompanied veterans through a long day of sightseeing in the Washington area.
Gahanna resident Julia Kelly, 92, wore her Navy WAVES cap as she gazed up at the World War II Memorial's pillars and wall of stars. She served at the Naval Air Station in Seattle during the war.
"I never did think I would see this," she said. "I think it is just remarkable they would do so much for us."
Gloria Campana, director of Reynoldsburg for Honor Flight, said Reynoldsburg raised $35,000 for the trip, which cost more than $50,000. The Gahanna community raised about $10,000, under the direction of teacher Tom Gregory, and the rest came from Honor Flight Columbus.
With the number of World War II veterans dwindling by about 600 a day, according to the National World War II Museum, it's important to help veterans visit their own memorial, Campana said.
Completed in 2004, the memorial is a large oval with 56 pillars, capped by sculpted bronze wreaths. A freedom wall features 4,000 gold stars, each representing 100 deaths of U.S. military personnel during the war.
Navy veteran Jim Burt, 79, of New Albany, said his uncle was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. He remembers the day World War II ended.
"I was just a kid, and I knew a lot of my neighbors were serving in that war," he said. "I remember the lady down the street started running and yelling, 'It's over; it's over!' "
Burt served in the Aleutian Islands during the Korean conflict.
The April 27 trip included a visit to Arlington National Cemetery.
A few cherry trees were still in bloom, scattering a soft carpet of pink blossoms over the headstones. Long rows of identical white marble stones stretched as far as the eye could see. Some veterans wiped tears away as they listened to the mournful notes of taps at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Don Klotz, 87, an Army veteran from Upper Arlington, said he was grateful to see the memorial but knew it would be "my first and last trip."
Klotz served in Germany as a messenger to Gen. George Patton, he said. He recalled being in a vehicle on the same road as Patton when the general's driver lost control on an icy road after a truck turned in front of them. Patton died in an Army hospital soon after the accident.
He said the battles in Germany claimed too many of his friends.
"Seventy to 80 of our men were killed every day; the Germans were good at that," he said.
Pataskala resident Jack Bowman, 86, was a Navy fireman on the USS Randolph. He also served as an electrician at several Navy bases.
"I was on the aircraft carrier when we ran into a hurricane," he said. "We had three escorts following us, but when we looked back, they were gone."
Ralph Heller, 93, of Clintonville, wore his old Navy uniform on the Honor Flight. He served from 1941 to 1945 in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea and Northern Ireland.
He said he was overwhelmed by the welcoming committee at the Baltimore airport, where a dozen young midshipmen from the Naval Academy at Annapolis cheered and saluted the veterans.
"That welcome was out of this world," Heller said. "I had no idea I would see so many comrades in arms. This is no doubt the highest point of my life -- and I've had a very good life."
Many of the midshipmen became guardians for the rest of the day, guiding veterans through visits to the Lincoln, Iwo Jima, Air Force, Korean and Vietnam memorials.
The veterans read thank-you letters from Gahanna and Reynoldsburg students during "mail call" on the bus back to the Baltimore airport.
The day ended at 9 p.m., when a huge crowd from Ga-hanna and Reynoldsburg cheered for the veterans as they arrived back at Port Columbus. Several people went up to hug veterans and shake hands as the Gahanna Lincoln High School band played rousing patriotic songs, It's a Grand Old Flag and The Star-Spangled Banner.