Eighty-five veterans who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam will visit memorials in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Sept. 8, as part of the 90th Honor Flight Columbus.
They will join the thousands of other veterans Honor Flight Columbus Inc. has transported to the capital city since 2007.
"We have transported 5,566 senior veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials dedicated to their service and sacrifice," said Pete MacKenzie, director of Honor Flight Columbus Inc.
Honor Flight's mission is threefold: to honor senior veterans with a free trip to visit their war memorials; to share their stories for the benefit of future generations; and to celebrate their homecoming and affirm their service, according to its website, honorflightcolumbus.org.
The flights are funded by "donations from individuals, civic, fraternal and social clubs, and businesses in central Ohio who recognize the great accomplishments and sacrifices of veterans and want them to see their memorial before it's too late. Students from many schools have held fundraisers and are significant contributors with funds and volunteers," according to the website.
Veterans must apply and are selected on a "first-come, first-served basis," the website said. Priority is given to WWII veterans and veterans with terminal illness, and veterans are limited to a single trip.
MacKenzie said the latest excursion, which is sponsored by the Westerville Honor Flight Committee, includes 13 veterans from WWII, 48 from Korea and 24 from Vietnam.
Participants include 21 veterans from Columbus; four each from Canal Winchester and Delaware; three each from Dublin and Westerville, two each from Gahanna, Grove City and Groveport; and one each from New Albany, Obetz and Pickerington.
World War II veteran Bennie Golden, 91, said he is eager and honored to participate.
The Westerville resident served in the U.S. Army from 1945 to 1948 as a member of the 28th Squadron of the 6th Cavalry Regiment.
"I was a tank commander," he said. "Of course, it was after the war. We had the job of training other soldiers for a constabulary, a unit trained for riots in Germany or any kind of police duty that needed to be worked on. I was a staff sergeant."
He entered the military shortly after graduating from Columbus East High School in 1944.
He said he was drafted and signed up for three years of duty with a buddy named Melvin Oakes, whom he met at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
"We got $300 or $400 to join," Golden said. "(Oakes) went to Fort Riley, Kansas, and I went to Newport News (Virginia) for shipment overseas. He came to Germany later."
Golden said he traveled from Le Havre, France, to Rosenheim, Germany, a city in the southern part of Bavaria.
"We were there a few days then went to Berlingen (Germany)," he said. "From there, I went to where I was stationed at Gossweinstein, Germany."
He was at Gossweinstein about 18 months before going to Hof, Germany.
"That was closer to the border of Czechoslovakia," Golden said. "We had the duty of guarding that post there."
He said he remembers seeing the concentration camp the Nazis established at nearby Flossenburg, Germany.
"I saw the furnaces where people were burned," he said. "You could still smell the odor from that. It was very upsetting to see this."
He said he saw rooms that contained teeth, clothing and jewelry that belonged to those who died in the camp.
"The Germans were very precise on keeping records and things," Golden said.
He also recalls attending the funeral of Gen. George S. Patton Jr., who died after a traffic accident in Germany in December 1945.
But relationships are what Golden remembers most from his time in the military, he said.
"I mostly think about the guys I was in with," he said. "The last year, they started moving us around to different outfits for different reasons."
Golden said he and Oakes probably weren't stationed 50 miles apart, but they never saw each other until they boarded a ship to come home.
"We came home from a big port in Germany -- a gang of guys were going home and they called names to get on a ship," he said. "I heard his name called out. We came home on the same boat. It was a Liberty (cargo) ship."
Upon returning to civilian life, Golden worked as a barber for 20 years, then owned and operated dry-cleaning businesses for 50 years in Bexley and north Columbus.
Golden and the other veterans will be accompanied on the Honor Flight by 58 guardians, including 20 from Westerville.
Guardians are volunteers who apply to help and then are trained to participate, and preference is given to military personnel, veterans and medical professionals, MacKenzie said.
"Guardians will meet at John Glenn Columbus International Airport at 5:30 a.m. to start the day," he said. "We will fly to Baltimore and meet another 18 guardians (who are active-duty U.S. Navy personnel)."
The guardians pay their way, which helps to underwrite the trip, MacKenzie said.
"We make sure they're vested in it," MacKenzie said.
He said the veterans always will be with someone younger and preferably from a different generation.
"We encourage them (veterans) to pair up with someone from a younger generation to get them to open up, to share (with) someone from a different generation," MacKenzie said. "The cross-sharing is part of our mission.
"When they went off to serve, they went off to serve with soldiers from other places. It makes it a team and inclusive, rather than going with your son or daughter. It's more than going to Washington, D.C."
The group will visit Arlington National Cemetery and witness a changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They also will visit the Women in Military Service for America Memorial and the World War II, Korea and Vietnam memorials.
Diane Fosselman, who serves on the Westerville Honor Flight Committee, said for the past 10 years that group has raised enough money to sponsor one Honor Flight a year.
"This year, our goal is $65,000 to cover the cost for the day in Washington, D.C.," Fosselman said. "We have fundraisers throughout the year, including a wine tasting in February that includes a silent auction, music and food from a variety of restaurants."
In June, the committee held a pancake breakfast at the American Legion Young-Budd Post 171 in Westerville.
"New this year, we are hosting Wreaths Across America at Otterbein Cemetery (on Dec. 15) to honor our veterans," Fosselman said. "We are selling wreaths now to be placed on the nearly 500 veteran graves."
MacKenzie said the Westerville committee has supported "Honor Flight with funds and volunteers nearly since inception" as it coordinates support for the organization in Westerville.
Fosselman said Westerville is fortunate to have many community partners, including service organizations and businesses.
"It is our great honor to serve our veterans through this wonderful program, Honor Flight," she said.
As part of the experience, veterans will receive letters of thanks from Westerville teachers, students and community members during an improvised "mail call."
"In the past, we have received lots of letters, including letters from community members, schools, scout troops and after-school-care programs," said Lisa Reschke, a clerk at Cherrington Elementary School. "Letters are encouraged and accepted year-round."
MacKenzie said the Honor Flight group will return to Columbus the same day, arriving between 9 and 9:30 p.m. The veterans will be met by a crowd that likely will exceed 1,000 people of all ages.
"A lot of what happens when they come home just happens," he said. "We normally make arrangements for a band."
Gahanna Lincoln High School band director Rob Cebriak said he anticipates some of his students will participate.
"We have had band kids involved every year for several years running, so I would expect that we will again," he said.
MacKenzie said flight sponsors have included citizens groups from Gahanna and Westerville. . Businesses, communities and foundations also are contributors
"It's a big deal," MacKenzie said. "It's just cool how it all works. It's awesome."