South Carolina veterans were able to take a trip to Washington, D.C. to see the WWII Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery through the Honor Flight program. (WRDW-TV / April 11, 2012)
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
WASHINGTON -- It was a one-of-a-kind field trip for about a hundred World War II veterans from South Carolina to Washington, D.C.
These men served their country in far-away places during the 1940s -- from the South Pacific to the battlefields of Europe -- but many of the veterans on this trip have never seen the monuments that were built in their honor, which is what the Honor Flight is all about.
The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina paid for the vets to make the trip and News 12 was invited along to tell their story -- our trip was paid for as well.
The veterans left Columbia, S.C., at sunrise on Wednesday and touched down at the nation's capital. Their first stop on Wednesday was the World War II Memorial, which opened in 2004. The memorial honors the 16 million American soldiers who served in the armed forces.
From there, it was on to the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam Wall and the Lincoln Memorial. They also got to pay a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, where they saw the changing of the guard.
These veterans are in their 80's and 90's now, but many of them were just teenagers when they were called to serve their country. After the war, they went back home to find jobs and start families. But on Wednesday, this band of brothers got back together again.
Dick Witter, 86, is one of those brothers. He says a "lucky break" kept him out of one of the bloodiest battles of the war when he broke his leg playing baseball.
"It kept me out of the Battle of The Bulge. All the fellas that graduated with me went to the Battle of the Bulge," he said.
Instead, Witter ended up in the South Pacific, arriving in Manila just days after the fighting there.
"All the buildings had been bombed out. There were still dead Japanese in the buildings," he said.
Walter Chelchowski saw the horrors of war, too, but he saw it from high above in a B-17 bomber.
"I tell ya -- when that thing came back, it came back in pieces, but it came back," he said.
And even though he flew wartime missions, one of his strongest memories is one of the most peaceful.
"Flying over the Alps. I ain't never seen them Alps coming up out of them clouds ... the clouds are way down low ... and the Alps are way up there," he said.
It was a lifetime ago, and a long way from home for Witter and Chelcowski, who were both born in New York and both live just a few miles apart in Aiken now.
They both know they were part of something special.
"Well, the sacrifices that group made to the United States ... their willingness to do it, more than anything," Witter said. "Of course we were being attacked. And we're gonna stand up and fight."
Chelcowski said it'll bring tears to your eyes thinking about it sometimes.
"There's a lot of guys who deserve a lot more honor than going to Washington to see that memorial," he said.
Washington is full of memorials, and members of the Greatest Generation worry about the next generation.
"It all depends on the future generations ... somebody's gotta teach these kids in school what these memorials mean," Chelcowski said. "They're just not statues over there. They have a meaning -- a deep meaning behind 'em."