Group's efforts send vets to see WWII memorial

08/23/2010 12:00 AM

08/23/2010 1:37 PM

At 87, Wichitan Merle Herrick never dreamed he'd get to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

"I knew I'd never be able to drive it," he said.

But earlier this year Herrick got his chance, thanks to Kansas volunteers and donors who chartered a plane and flew him and other aging veterans there.

They want to send more. But time is running out.

"We want to do it before they die," said Mike VanCampen, the leader of the Central Prairie Honor Flight based in Great Bend. "That's the whole essence of what this is all about."

The group identifies Kansas World War II veterans and flies them to Washington — at no cost to the veteran — to see the memorial and other sights. Their next flight is Sept. 28, when they'll shuttle 113 more veterans.

The average age of World War II veterans is 83. It has been estimated nationally these veterans are dying at a rate of more than 1,400 a day.

"When we approach an individual, a business or organization about a donation and they say, 'Give us a call next year,' " VanCampen said, "I look them in the eye and say, 'Next year is too late for a lot of these guys.' "

Seeing the memorial

Herrick contributed money to the World War II memorial several years ago. The Honor Flight allowed him to finally see the monument dedicated to the sacrifices his generation made.

The monument, Herrick said, "was beautiful and out of this world when I really saw it."

His voice trembling, he described seeing hundreds of schoolchildren lining the concourse of the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. They waved tiny American flags and shouted "Thank you" to the elderly veterans as they were wheeled or walked off the plane.

"As long as I live, I will never forget that," he said. "They kept saying, 'Thank you.' I couldn't help it. Tears came to my eyes and I thought, 'Oh my God, if we had lost the war, those little kids might not have been here.' "

An estimated 16 million men and women served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. More than 400,000 never came home.

Almost as soon as the World War II Memorial opened to the public in 2004, an effort to shuttle veterans to the monument began.

The first one began in Cincinnati when Earl Morris, a retired Air Force pilot, befriended a World War II veteran.

When Morris told the veteran he should see the monument, the veteran told him he'd love to but couldn't afford it. So Morris flew him in his private plane.

As word spread of Morris' efforts, more patrons stepped forward. So far 95 hubs for the National Honor Flight Network have been established to shuttle veterans to the monument.

Central Prairie Honor Flights formed in 2008. The group has raised more than $200,000 and flown about 1,000 veterans and their guardians on 11 flights from Kansas City, Wichita and Denver to Baltimore.

'Why we do this'

VanCampen, of the Kansas group, said one veteran he called recently about an upcoming trip can no longer go: He has bone cancer.

Although terminally ill patients are given top priority, this veteran, VanCampen said, decided he couldn't do it.

Another said he couldn't make the trip because his wife has Alzheimer's and he didn't want to leave her.

"The hardest thing is talking to the public and making them understand why we do this," VanCampen said.

"Sixty-five years ago, these men and women were called upon to defend our country. They took off their overalls, jeans and suits and went over and literally saved our country.

"Four years later, they came home, took off their uniforms, put their overalls, jeans and suits back on and then went back to work and built the greatest country on Earth."

The veterans

Wichitan Gail Baxter heard only a few days ago that he'd be on the Sept. 28 flight to Washington.

At 84, he too was beginning to wonder if he'd ever get to see the memorial.

When Baxter joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943, he couldn't wait to serve. He enlisted as a private and served as a forward observer for naval gunfire in Okinawa, China and Peleliu, which had one of the highest casualty rates of any battle in the Pacific Theater.

"It wasn't the most comfortable place to be," Baxter says now.

He was awarded a silver star for his valor and promoted to staff sergeant. He saw his lieutenant shot and killed.

"I loved the guy. We were friends," Baxter said.

He led a squad of flame-thrower operators to where Japanese snipers had been cutting Marines down with deadly accuracy. The location was not only a machine gun nest, he says, but an ammunitions stockpile.

Baxter also served in the Korean War, this time stateside as a military police criminal investigator.

He says he has little interest in seeing Washington, D.C., because he's been there before. But he wants to see the memorial.

"It is a memorial to a number of men I know that were killed," he said. "At this stage in my life I think about them.... I just lost another one of my buddies not too long ago."

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