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Rural Missouri Magazine

One day of honor
Honor Flights help World War II vets get their due

by Bob McEowen

Arnold Tuley of Cairo tours the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., accompanied by his grandson, Tennessee Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Arnold Beal, and volunteer Master Sgt. Lorene Kitzmiller. Tuley was in Washington as part of an Honor Flight, which departed from Columbia in October. The Honor Flight program arranges trips to the memorial for World War II veterans. Beal flew in for the day to be with his grandfather.

Ralph Kalberloh remembers one day in 1945 like no other. A tail gunner on a B-17 bomber, the Army Air Corps veteran was shot down over Germany and spent five days in the woods before being taken prisoner. In captivity three months, he was freed on April 29.

“I was liberated by (Gen. George) Patton,” Kalberloh says. “That was the greatest day of my life. A tank rolled up and there was Patton standing in a jeep.”

Another day now burns nearly as bright in his memory: Oct. 13, 2009, the day he stepped off a jetway in Baltimore and a throng of well-wishers applauded him and 74 other veterans en route to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“When I came into the airport and all those people were clapping, I started crying,” the Jefferson City resident says. “I never had anything like that.”

Kalberloh and his companions were part of an Honor Flight, a program that seeks to provide every World War II veteran possible a chance to see the memorial America has finally erected in their honor.

“It’s just something that needs to be done,” says Steve Paulsell, flight director for the Columbia-based Central Missouri Honor Flight organization. “A lot of these folks weren’t going to get a chance to see it, and this is just one last chance for them to be acknowledged and for us to say thank you.”

Launched in Ohio in 2005, the Honor Flight program is deceptively simple: load a group of veterans on an airplane, take them to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., and bring them back the same day. In truth, Honor Flights are more than just whirlwind sightseeing excursions. These trips provide an opportunity for veterans to reflect on their experiences and allow a grateful nation a way to show its appreciation.

The idea for Honor Flights came just months after the memorial was dedicated in April 2004. Built nearly 60 years after the end of the war, the sprawling monument features two towers to symbolize the war’s Pacific and European theaters of operation, 56 columns that honor each U.S. state and territory and a wall bearing 4,000 stars — one star for each 100 men killed in the war.

World War II veterans Herb Meyer of Jefferson City and Harold Esser of Boonville visit Arlington National Cemetery during a recent Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.

Ironically, the monument came almost too late. Fewer than 2 million of the 16 million Americans who served from 1941 to 1945 survive. Another 1,000 World War II veterans die each day.

“In our lifetime, we will see that there will be no more World War II veterans,” says Charlie Thomas, a radio personality and president of Sedalia-based Show-Me Honor Flight. “The youngest one would be 81 now. The oldest one we’ve taken has been 95.”

The original Honor Flight consisted of a squadron of six private airplanes that carried 12 World War II vets from Ohio to Washington, D.C. Today, Honor Flights are flown on commercial aircraft and organized by more than 70 local chapters, or hubs, nationwide. Currently, five hubs operate in Missouri, with several more being formed. The national organization expects more than 40,000 veterans will have participated by the end of 2009.

The Oct. 13 flight was the fifth for the Central Missouri chapter, which made its initial flight in May. Together, the two mid-Missouri chapters have flown more than 400 World War II veterans.

Honor Flights are funded by private donations and are free for anyone who served in the U.S. military during World War II. The trips, which also include stops at Arlington National Cemetery and memorials dedicated to the Korean and Vietnam wars, also are open to terminally ill veterans of later wars. A small army of volunteers accompanies the veterans. The most recent Central Missouri Honor Flight included 35 “guardians,” including two physicians and several nurses, paramedics and EMTs.

Expressions of support came frequently on the Oct. 13 Honor Flight, which began with a bus ride to St. Louis in the wee hours of the morning. Highway Patrol cruisers escorted the group into the airport. At each stop, volunteers and bystanders alike greeted veterans and thanked them for their service. A cheering crowd of family and well-wishers awaited the veterans as they returned to Columbia after midnight.

Throughout the trip, these brothers in arms began to share their stories. One 94-year-old veteran recalled landing in North Africa with British commandos. Another survived the Battle of the Bulge. Yet another suffered injuries and saw two friends killed in a hail of machine gun fire in the Philippines. Each had his or her story, and the memories came rushing forth as they gazed on the memorial’s stone pillars.

Doren Wood served as a shoe repairman with the U.S. Navy on the island of Guam. As he sat near the fountain at the center of the World War II Memorial, he recalled the death of a friend. With tears in his eyes, Wood says the trip to Washington, D.C., was far more than he imagined.

World War II veterans from central Missouri visit at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. Ray Bennett, left, the Missouri state chaplain for the American Legion, says the trip to Washington, D.C., provides a healthy avenue for World War II veterans to reflect on their experiences.

“I didn’t know what to expect. Really, I just thought it was a memorial, but seeing the actual monument, it hit me,” he says. “This was very personal to me. I think any vet that would see that, it would touch them.”

While much attention has been paid to the struggles faced by Vietnam veterans, those involved in the Honor Flight program say that World War II vets carry their own emotional scars. Visiting the memorial with fellow veterans provides a safe place and time to address those memories.

“It’s a healing process for many of them,” Paulsell says. “They’ve been carrying around a lot of stuff inside of them, and they can talk through some of it on the plane and on the bus and standing in the middle of the memorials. I think it’s all a very, very healthy thing.”

Ray Bennett, a Navy veteran from Sunrise Beach and chaplain of the American Legion in Missouri, agrees. “I think today opened up some old history that was very painful, and yet it offered the opportunity for some closure,” he says. “I would guess, for the most of the guys, they needed to make this pilgrimage and say finally, in so many words, ‘It’s OK.’”

For others, the journey provided an opportunity to recall a loved one who perished in the war or honor others who had served. Still, other veterans simply enjoyed seeing that their country has erected a memorial to their service.

Regardless of their motivations or the feelings they experience during an Honor Flight, one thing is clear. The generation that served in World War II is aging, and the opportunity for them to see their memorial is limited. That realization has created a sense of urgency among Honor Flight organizers.

Both the Show-Me and Central Missouri hubs have additional trips planned for 2009 and are working diligently to raise money and spread the word about upcoming flights in 2010. Meanwhile, chapters are forming in Hannibal and Springfield with hopes of enlisting veterans in those areas.

“This is a time-critical venture,” Paulsell says. “This is not something we’re going to be doing in 15 years, at least not for the World War II veterans. We need to do it right now."

For more information, contact the national offices of the Honor Flight network at 937-521-2400, or log on to www.honorflight.org for a list of every local hub nationwide. You can contact Show-Me Honor Flight at 660-287-3271 or 660-553-1080. Call Central Missouri Honor Flight at 573-301-5657.

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