Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A moving 'memorial day'

Received this e-mail from Jennifer Gilliland at OPA today about a story written by one of Oklahoma's finest professors, who not only has been my mentor but also my friend:

Dr. Terry Clark recently accompanied the Oklahoma Honor Flight when it took 99 World War II veterans to visit the WWII monument in Washington, DC.

(Below) is the story Terry wrote about the trip. Group photos of the trip are available at Unfortunately, we don't have names for those in the group shots.

By Terry M. Clark, Journalism Professor at the University of Central Oklahoma

Ninety-nine World War II vets from across Oklahoma left on a chartered jet by the dawn’s early light for a one-day whirlwind tour of war memorials in Washington D.C. on May 17.

They were guests of the inaugural Oklahoma Honor Flight organized by volunteers in Midwest City to honor them.

They toured the World War II Memorial, the Marine statue of the flag raising at Iwo Jima and the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The stories that should be told are endless. There were survivors of the Battle of the Bulge and Pearl Harbor, former POWs, Purple Hearts and men who witnessed the flag raising on Iwo Jima. Oldest vet along was a 94-year-old Tulsan.

Then they flew home, arriving at the Air National Guard hangars at Will Rogers World Airport at 10:30 p.m.

Starting last fall, the group raised $95,000 to cover all expenses and it’s making plans for more flights, including one in October. Chairman Steve Coleman of Midwest City said there were another 230 World War II vets from Oklahoma on waiting lists.

There were about 200 people on the jet, as each veteran who needed help had an assigned guardian. In addition, Oklahoma Press Association was represented, and Channels 2 and 8 of Tulsa and OETA.

Each of the vets wore a light blue T-shirt with the Honor Flight logo. Guardians had red T-shirts. All had blue caps with American flags.

The celebrations began the Sunday before the trip with a reception and ceremony at the Reed Convention Center in Midwest City attended by more than 500 people, including the vets.

The vets marched into the reception hall to the cadence of a military drum and the standing ovation of the crowd. The Governors Honor Guard presented the colors. Master of Ceremonies was Rep. Gary Banz of Midwest City, a former government teacher who helped organize the events.

Each vet was presented a copy of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Then in came the school children of the Mid-Del district with commemorative coins for the vets, exchanging them for the copies of the American documents. The school kids raised $25,000 of the total project cost.

Keynote speaker was Lt. Gen. Loren Reno, former commandant at Tinker Air Force Base. The vets spent the night at an adjacent hotel and were up by 3:30 a.m. for the mile-long escorted bus convoy to the airport. Before leaving the hotel each bus passed under an arch formed by the Del City fire truck ladders, a salute from the firemen. Highway Patrol motorcycles and police cars, lights flashing in the darkness, led the buses to the airport where uniformed members of the Air National Guard met the vets.

After making their way through a makeshift security scan set up by TSA, service men and women helped each vet on the tarmac up the stairs to the waiting jet.

The jet began moving as the sun came up, with the uniformed military standing at attention and saluting. Base fire trucks sprayed the plane with water.

Two-and-a-half hours later the jet landed in Baltimore and a group crew of volunteers were there to welcome the vets with cheers and smiles and help them onto buses for the ride to Washington.

It was drizzling but it didn’t dampen the crowd getting off the buses. Wearing provided rain slickers, with several vets in wheelchairs, they toured the World War II Memorial, congregating at the Oklahoma pillar and taking in the newest of Washington’s monuments. The American flag, with the black POW-MIA flag, flew nearby.

Honor flights began in Ohio about five years ago and the idea has spread. Oklahoma is the 31st state to have the program. So far, about 40,000 vets have made the trip. The priority is to get any World War II vet who is able to get on a jet to see the memorials. Only about three million World War II vets are still alive. Those vets are in their 80s and 90s, and time is taking the toll that the Japanese and Germans didn’t in World War II. Eventually, the priority will shift to Korean vets and then Vietnam.

Before they landed back in Oklahoma, each veteran answered “Mail Call,” with a packet of about a dozen letters. One was from the vet’s representative. The rest were from the school children, handwritten notes thanking them for their service. At the airport, the Air Force was again waiting to help them off the plane, and flag waving family members also were there.

The Oklahoma program began when a Midwest City veteran, Al Willoughby, USAF-Ret., went to Texas to take part in an Honor Flight. When he came home and told the Midwest City Rotary about it, his fellow Rotarians started work, wanting a program for Oklahoma veterans.

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