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Thu, Dec. 12

Talk of the Town: Flights to D.C. honor WWII heroes

I would like to share an amazing experience that I recently had. As I'm sure you are aware, we are rapidly losing our World War II veterans. They are all in their mid- to late-80s and 90s now. The organization, Honor Flight, was founded eight years ago when it became apparent that most of these veterans have never had the opportunity to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., that was dedicated in their honor. The goal of Honor Flight is to see that as many of these heroes get that opportunity, expense free, before they are gone. To date, over 100,000 vets have been able to participate in this endeavor. There are 120 Honor Flight hubs throughout the United States, all of which provide that opportunity. The Honor Flight Arizona trip that I was part of was three unbelievable days that took place just four days before Memorial Day.

Twenty-seven vets, ages 86 to 97 and representing all branches of the service including the Army Air Corps, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine, all met at the Phoenix airport. They were all ambulatory, some with canes and walkers, although about half of them required the use of a wheelchair if they needed to go very far from the bus. There also were 27 volunteer "Guardians," one for each veteran, whose job was to see to their safety and well being. As a Guardian, I was paired with an 89-year-old soldier, Kerby, who lives in Bullhead City, with his wife of 63 years. We were inseparable during those three days. Upon arrival in Baltimore, we were greeted by fire trucks shooting water over the top of the plane. We spent the first night at a Hilton Hotel, had dinner and rested up for the next day. It was amazing to see how these 27 vets immediately bonded, regardless of service branch or in which theater they served. It was like they were youngsters again, laughing and joking around, kidding each other about service rivalries and so on.

The next day was a jam-packed itinerary. In this one single day, the group toured the Capitol, visited the World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Wall, the Korean War Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Navy Memorial, the Air Force Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery. and viewed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was 89 degrees and very humid but it did not deter the enthusiasm of these genuine American heroes. Dinner that night was at Fort Myer. The next morning, after breakfast, we toured Fort McHenry where the battle during the War of 1812 inspired our National Anthem. Then it was back to Baltimore for the flight home.

To give you an idea of the types of experiences these fellows have lived with all their lives, look no further than my veteran, Kerby. He was a Wyoming cowboy. He enlisted in the Army with two of his high school friends at the age of 18. After boot camp, he was being trained to be a machine gunner when a desperate call for volunteers came. They needed paratroopers for the D-Day invasion. Kerby and his two buddies volunteered and were assigned to the 82nd Airborne. They were hurried through training, learned how to pack their chutes and were given one ... yes, one ... practice jump and were immediately sent to England where they boarded a C-47 headed for Normandy. Being novice jumpers, Kerby and his two buddies didn't want to be the first ones out of the plane so they milled around during the loading and were the last ones on, Kerby being the last. What they didn't know was, the last ones on were the first ones out! Over Normandy, Kerby's plane took a direct hit, the shell coming up through the bottom of the plane. Being the first in line, Kerby and his two buddies managed to get out. They looked over their shoulders in time to see another round hit the plane, which then exploded killing everyone else. The three buddies were the only survivors although Kerby had large pieces of shrapnel in his foot. Not being near their intended drop zone, they landed in the middle of the German army. Surrounded by German soldiers and tanks, they burrowed into the hedgerows where they hid for over two weeks, tending to Kerby's injuries and surviving by stealing vegetables from a nearby farm. Eventually the 29th Infantry pushed the Germans back and the three paratroopers joined up with the 29th. They fought all the way into Germany, where a sniper shot Kerby in the back. His pack saved his life even though the round entered his back a mere half-inch from his spine and ended up in his right lung. Kerby's fighting was over, but he had earned two Purple Hearts.

The trip to Washington was very emotional in many respects, but the most emotional times came when we would encounter large crowds at the airports and the various venues. The veterans all had on yellow T-shirts with the Honor Flight logo and when people realized who they were they all started clapping and cheering. Everywhere we went, school children, teenagers, adults and senior citizens all wanted to shake their hands and thank them for their service - recognition long overdue and immensely appreciated.

Honor Flight will continue to make these trips available to our WWII veterans until there are no more. Currently, there are over 300 flights made each year nationally. The Arizona Honor flight organization makes eight trips a year. Volunteers at each of the airports help to organize the trips. For information on how to nominate a veteran, how you might assist this program, or how to become a volunteer or a Guardian, visit HonorFlight.com or in Arizona, go to HonorFlightAZ.com.

Larry Richey has lived in Prescott for 15 years. He is a Guardian for Arizona Honor Flight, a U.S. Marine veteran and is a retired deputy of the Orange County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department.

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