Lee Smith recently took part in the Honor Flight on April 11, 2015. He spent his career in the Air Force as a pilot and retired as a Colonel. Lee and his wife Shirley are residents of Bethany Village and are very active volunteers, both on campus at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
Thanks to Honor Flight Dayton for a most rewarding experience to visit the great War Memorials in our Nation’s Capital. Thanks also to Bethany Village for being a sponsor of Honor Flight and assisting myself and five other Bethany residents to make this trip.
I have been aware of Honor Flight since its inception ten years ago. Earl Morse was the man who envisioned the idea of getting World War II veterans to Washington D.C. to visit the new WWII Memorial. He briefed the Daedalians at Wright Patterson and was successful in getting some Air Force pilots to join him in flying these veterans to Washington in small single engine planes, taking two veterans in each plane. Note: Daedalians is an organization of Military Pilots with chapters at many Air Force Bases. I am a past Flight Captain of the Wright Patterson Daedalian Flight and am currently the Flight Chaplain.
While the best was yet to come, the reception we received at the Dayton airport at 3:00 AM on April 11 was most impressive. Honor Flight Dayton was fully organized and prepared to host a bunch of old guys that were about to experience “a thousand memories” over the next 20 hours! We were greeted by “uniformed” volunteers in bright yellow shirts that checked us in and briefed us on the details of our trip. We also met our Guardian who would be with us for the entire trip. This pre-flight meeting provided Honor Flight the opportunity to evaluate each veteran to determine what special needs each veteran would require for this trip. There would be two medical personnel making the trip with us. Several veterans required medications during the trip and the medical personal were fully qualified to assist in these matters. Most of us had our personal camera but Honor Flight offered those without a camera a “one-use” camera.
Our flight to Washington’s Reagan National Airport was smooth and only took one hour. Three large tour buses were ready to take us on our way. Our first stop was at the west end of the Mall where we toured the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam War Memorial. There are several other small memorials in this area that were visited. We climbed the many steps to the top of the Lincoln Memorial so we could take close-up pictures of “Lincoln” as we stood in front of the statue.
Visiting the Korean and Vietnam Memorials was a sobering experience. The stories behind these vicious wars were brought into focus as we stood and pondered thoughts that were hidden in our memories. For me, the Korean Memorial brought out memories of “what might have been.” I went off to college the fall of 1950 while several of my high school classmates were drafted and sent to Korea. My military service was to be deferred for four years while I studied engineering and military science via ROTC. I graduated in 1954 with a BS degree in Engineering and a Commission as an Air Force Officer. I had an assignment for pilot training starting in April 1955. By 1967 I was in Vietnam as a C-130 pilot. One of our missions was transporting military passengers: new arrivals were taken to their army bases; wounded were taken to the large military field hospitals; and finally we took many “body bags” to the morgue in Saigon. The circle of life of a military person had been completed!
Many of the veterans at the Vietnam Memorial were looking for a specific name. In my case, I found the name of Gary Brunner. Gary had been my co-pilot on my C-130 crew. A year later he was upgraded and got his own crew. Within two months his C-130 was shot down and all perished. He left a young wife and baby. This story weighed heavy but after all, this is why Honor Flight and our visit was necessary. We all needed closure even after all these years.
Our next stop was the Air Force Memorial. This is the newest Service Memorial and is situated on a hill behind the Pentagon. It is simple in design but very impressive as the three curving spires rise nearly 300 feet into the sky. We were given a box lunch at the Air Force Memorial and it was a fitting site to view the DC skyline on a bright sunny day and rest after being on our feet for some four hours. The box lunch reminded me of the hundreds and hundreds of “flight lunches” I have had during my 5000 flight hours of pilot time in the Air Force.
After lunch and some rest time, we boarded the buses and proceeded to the Marines Memorial. This is a very popular and impressive memorial. It replicates the raising the US flag on Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima during WWII.
In 1961 I had the good fortune of visiting Iwo Jima. Around the base of the Marines Memorial the many Marine battles are listed. Many of them were WWII battles. The setting of the Marines Memorial is special as it is surrounded on three sides by the Arlington National Cemetery. During my seven years of service stationed in the Pacific I was able to visit several of these islands/battle sites. (Hawaii, Midway, Wake, Kwajalein , Eniwetak, Formosa, Iwo Jima, Guam, Ponape, Kusie, Okinawa, Ulithi, Philippines).
Our next stop was the Arlington National Cemetery. Our Honor Flight guide shared numerous bits of Arlington history. The hi-light was observing the Changing Of The Guard at the tomb of the unknown solider. This is “must see” for any visitor to the D.C. area.
The World War II Memorial was our final memorial to visit. It is located on the East end of the National Mall. It is a large memorial befitting the impact WW II had on our nation and its people. Each state and possession is identified to give credit to all who contributed to this great effort. Again I am reminded that the main reason Honor Flight was formed was to afford the opportunity for WWII veterans to see this great memorial. We had at least one WWII veteran with us on this trip.
A human interest story: Senator Bob Dole was at the WWII Memorial to meet and greet visitors, especially Honor Flight veterans. He is in poor physical health these days but is very personable and ready to visit with all. He remained seated near the south end of the Memorial. He shook my hand! I understand he often is there to meet Honor Flight visitors.
Also noted: The veterans on this Honor Flight trip are members of the last generation who have personal memories of WWII. We were not old enough to serve in the military but served on the home front. Some filled in for older brothers or fathers who did go off to war. We remember rationing of food, gasoline, etc. We remember the banners hung on front doors/windows with blue, and all to often a gold star, denoting a family member was an active part of the war effort.
A personal observation: There were several hundred people at the WWII memorial when we were there. All ages were represented. It appeared to me that many of them were gathered there because this Memorial offered a place to sit as the design of the Memorial incorporated lots of bench type seating. Some of this actually impeded visitors who wished to see and appreciate the Memorial.
The part that I took exception to most was the families with small children that let the children use the central part of the Memorial as a wading pool. This solemn Memorial deserves greater respect, in my opinion.
An added bonus!!! The famous cherry tree blossoms were at their very best for our visit. To see them at their peak would be worth a trip to DC!!
It was beginning to feel like a long day as we made our way to the bus. Our next stop would be to the Great American Buffet. Honor Flight was making sure we were well hydrated and well fed! They were always handing out bottled water throughout the day. This was a good thing and a further indication of the great planning and pro active approach to get us there and get us home in good shape.
Perhaps an amusing side note: When we would get off the bus at a new site, the first thing the Honor Flight guide would tell us was where the closest rest room was. It is always good to really know your people; in this case a bunch of old men.
The closet thing we encountered as a problem occurred at the DC airport. We were at the gate waiting to board our aircraft which was clearly visible to us through the window. The flight crew was there as was the ground crew making last minute inspections. Then I noticed a airplane maintenance man crawling up on the number two engine. He was inspecting something on the compressor section of the engine. I have “been there and done that” many times in my 20 plus years of military flying: Always do a thorough last minute inspection to make sure the aircraft is ready for a SAFE flight. Soon we saw the baggage conveyer reverse course and baggage was being off-loaded. This was not good news!
The lady at the Gate 15 desk announced that our plane was not going anywhere until it was safe to fly. The good news immediately followed that we were to proceed to Gate 42 and our new plane would take us to Dayton with only a minimal delay. A cheer went up!
My Veteran buddies seemed amused as I had been giving them a running commentary regarding the maintenance investigation of our first assigned airplane. I can not just get on an airplane and ignore my surroundings. I have to maintain cognizance of what is happening before/during/after each flight. Such awareness has probably been a factor in not having a single accident in my 5000 hours plus of military flying. My closest call was actually on Pan Am flight 830 from Japan to Hawaii in 1982.
The highlight of the flight back to Dayton was Mail Call. What a neat touch by the Honor Flight people. They had contacted our families and suggested that they write letters to us that would be held by Honor Flight until we were on our flight home. We each got a large envelope which held these very special letters. These letters brought a tear to my eyes. My eight year old granddaughter said she was happy her Granddad was a War Hero. Well, I am willing to overlook this slight exaggeration because it made both of us feel good!
Our flight home arrived without incident. However, the night was not over. Our Honor Flight leader announced that there would be a welcoming for us at the airport. This had to be the biggest understatement of the whole trip. It was overwhelming. I personally identified with the uniformed military men and women that met us. There were at least a couple hundred on the upper concourse that greeted us warmly. What a nice treat.
What was not expected and overwhelmed me was what awaited us on the main floor of the terminal. The welcome on the upper concourse was just the beginning. The band played, the hundreds clapped, the military gave us a salute. All of a sudden my sweetheart of sixty-five plus years leaped out of the crowd with a big hug and kiss. Almost too much for this 82 year old but this was a case of too much being just right! The young ladies sang a beautiful rendition of our National Anthem and I could not hold back a tear.
There was the entire contingent from Bethany. Thanks to Mr. Serr and the entire staff of Bethany for sponsoring Honor Flight.
Colonel USAF Ret.
Apr 14, 2015