WWII veterans honored through free flight to visit D.C. memorials

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Wednesday, May 23, 2012

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- On Wednesday, 90 World War II veterans from across South Carolina traveled to Washington and back to see the memorial that was built in their honor.

It's a special trip appropriately called an Honor Flight, and News 12 made that same trip a few weeks ago with about 100 veterans.

It lives up to its name in every way. From their arrival before sunrise in Columbia to a heroes' welcome just a few hours later at Reagan National Airport in Washington, they are honored every step of the way.

Even as their special charter flight rolls up to the gate, the veterans are showered with appreciation. Firefighters offer a water cannon salute, forming an archway for the US Airways jet to roll under. A Marine in full dress uniform is among the large crowd waiting to greet them in the airport terminal.

"Thank you for paving the way for all of us ... we appreciate ya," he told them.

Months of planning and execution goes into showing members of The Greatest Generation a good time, remembering that many of them are in their 80s and 90s. Some are walking with canes. Others are in wheelchairs.

Congressman Joe Wilson says he's never seen an airport welcome like this one.

"Well, and I had to let the veterans know this is not the way people are normally greeted when you get to Washington," he said. "So it was more heartwarming to me maybe than they even knew."

It's all a labor of love for Bill Dukes, who heads up Honor Flight of South Carolina. His own father was on the first flight and it took off from there.

"We've had, what 10 flights?" Dukes seems to ask himself. "This is our 11th flight out of Columbia. And we've helped put together flights out of Charleston and Myrtle Beach."

Wednesday's flight makes 12. On a trip in mid-April, News 12 went along every step of the way following three veterans from Aiken County.

Dick Witter spent weeks on a Liberty Ship before arriving in Manila.

"Well, the sacrifices that group made to the United States," Whitter said. "Their willingness to do it, more than anything. Of course we were being attacked. And we're gonna stand up and fight."

And fight, they did.

Walter Chelchowski is also from Aiken. He flew missions in B-17's. He's visiting his memorial for the first time.

He looked around, trying to take it all in.

"Man, this is a monstrous thing, isn't it?"

As the veterans step off their buses and begin to tour the World War II Memorial, they are overcome with a sound. Some say the sound of the fountain reminds them of the applause of a grateful nation.

Others are here to give voice to that.

"Thank you for your service," one bystander told them.

A veteran with tears in his eyes replied, "Thank you very much ... thank you very much."

Leslie Culpepper made the trip, too. He calls North Augusta home.

"I guess I'm the baby in the crowd," Culpepper said. " Some of these fellas are up in the 90s and I'm still in my 80s."

And like so many of these veterans, Culpepper was just 17 when he answered the call.

Their time at their memorial includes a moment to remember the young ones who never made it back home. A solder plays "Taps" as the memories trigger more tears. And Honor Flight makes it all possible with no cost to the veterans.

"It's nice to know this generation is honored the way it is. It's sad to know that the Vietnam Veterans weren't honored the same way," Chelchowski said.

Sponsors make it it all possible. The April trip is funded by the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina.

Wilson came along to escort former Congressman Ed Young of Florence.

"Absolutely fantastic," Young said. "They paid for everything and gave us a chance to see other veterans -- and that's been exciting."

And the Honor Flights will continue until they run out of veterans who can make the trip. That may be a challenge as The Greatest Generation fades away.

"We have less than 3 million World War II veterans who are living and they're passing away at a rate of 1,200 or more a day," Dukes said.

But there's already a plan in place for when that does eventually happen. The plan is to honor those who fought in Korea.

"That is a group that has not received the recognition that they should and we're hoping that will be our next step to honor our Korean veterans," Dukes said.

But if their stamina on this trip is any sign at all, don't expect these WWII vets to fade away fast. After a full day of touring the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Wall, the Iwo Jima Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery, they're still up for party at Reagan National complete with 1940s swing music and dancing. You'd think they saved the world or something!

With much to think about, the flight back to Columbia is more subdued. But their day isn't quite over yet. The day ends with one final celebration for this band of brothers -- a hero's welcome back where it all started in Columbia. The vets find themselves surrounded by friends, family and well-wishers. There's applause and music from the Army Band at Fort Jackson.

The end of a day and a trip of a lifetime.

Click here for more information on a future Honor Flight for South Carolina veterans.

Georgia is also part of the Vets To Washington program. That trip is by bus and offers even more time on the ground to see the sights of Washington. Click here for more information.


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