WASHINGTON, D.C. —This past week 114 aging veterans and their guardians arrived in Washington to see the World War II Memorial.
These veterans won't be the last.
In the future, Central Prairie Honor Flights — the Kansas chapter of a national grassroots movement — hopes to fly at least 3,000 more Kansas World War II veterans.
Another flight is scheduled in November.
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But time is running out.
The average age of the World War II veterans is 83. It's been estimated nationally these veterans are dying at a rate of more than 1,400 a day.
Mike VanCampen, the leader of Central Prairie Honor Flights based in Great Bend, said the veterans' ages and the throes of a long recession sometimes make it difficult to raise the funds needed for each trip.
The cost of sending each veteran is $650; however, the veterans themselves are sent at no cost to them.
The cost of each trip though is funded through local fundraisers and donors. The funds needed for each trip depends on the number of veterans making the flight and can vary between $37,000 and $100,000, VanCampen said.
The trips include lodging, meals and bus transportation while in the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore area.
So far, Central Prairie Honor Flights has made 11 flights.
"What is most frustrating is that many of these World War II veterans do not know about the program," VanCampen said. "We need to make sure these veterans know this is available to them at no cost. And then, the rest of us have to step up and make it happen."
It is up to the veterans or their families and friends to contact the Central Prairie Honor Flights program and fill out applications for the trips.
For every veteran, a story
As he waited to greet and address the Kansas veterans before they left the plane in Baltimore, Col. Steve Franklin of Andrews Air Force Base commented on the lack of information known about his own grandfather, who had served on World War II General of the Army Douglas MacArthur's personal staff.
"He passed away when I was very young and unfortunately nobody in the family bothered to get those stories," Franklin said. "I inherited his battle ribbons and dog tags but I don't have the stories to go with it. So, I want each of these veterans to simply pass their stories on to their friends and family and preserve it for generations to come."
Hal Turner is taking time to know his dad's story. From Urbandale, Iowa, Hal Turner flew in to Baltimore this past week specifically to accompany his dad, John "Jack" Turner of Lindsborg on the trip.
During World War II, the elder Turner, now 92, served in the Army Air Corps in Kansas City, Mo.
"He never left the states during the war," Hal Turner said. "At work one time, he mentioned to the other guys that he was so jealous they had served in combat. They gave him a strange look. He wants to honor the guys who did serve — all the guys who served both in the way he did and those who had to give a lot more than he had to give."
Some people turned the trip into a family occasion. Case in point: the Whitmore family in Hutchinson.
Ninety-year-old Benjamin Franklin Whitmore's three sons — Lamont, Rick and Tim — and grandson, Trent, accompanied him on the trip. Not that he needed it. He insisted on pushing some of the other veterans in their wheelchairs.
During the war, Whitmore was a radio operator on B-24s, flying 29 missions over Germany.
"I want my dad to know that we, the whole United States, and his own family appreciate his sacrifices," Tim Whitmore said.
The 114 veterans and their guardians were transported around the nation's capital in four buses that included 16 wheelchairs, water coolers filled with chilled water bottles and two oxygen bottles for each bus.
After hours of travel and sightseeing, the old veterans were the featured guests at a banquet.
One of the highlights of the meal is mail call — where each veteran received several items of mail written by family, friends and strangers.
More than 600 items of mail were received for the 114 veterans with more than 65 Kansas schools participating in a letter-writing campaign to the men.
At age 90, Frank Hulet of Hutchinson paid little interest during that mail call — until a package of letters and a FedEx package was delivered to his table.
With shaking hands, he carefully examined the outside writing on the envelopes.
Did he know who sent them.
"No," he said as tears filled his eyes.
His daughter Ginger Zyskowski encouraged him to open them.
Some were from schoolchildren. But there were others from his grandsons that caught his attention.
"My grandson!" he exclaimed, grinning from ear-to-ear. "Isn't this wonderful?"
He read each letter thanking him for his service.
What he did during the war was no small task.
He worked as an enlisted man in the engineering department at Norfolk, Va. and was given an assignment one day to design and make a hoist to lift B-25s onto a carrier deck.
It was a top-secret mission.
He had 40 hours to pull it off — he did it in 36.
"It had never been tested," Hulet said. "They rolled a B-25 in the hangar. The top brass were watching. They lifted it up on the hoist, first try. Everybody clapped and I went back to the barracks and went to bed."
Three weeks later, 16 U.S. Army Air Force B-25s were launched from the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet in the Western Pacific Ocean led by Lt. Col. James "Jimmy" Doolittle. The Doolittle Raid was the first U.S. air raid to strike the Japanese home islands during the war.
In group force, the aging veterans and their guardians become a sea of red T-shirts and blue hats as they surrounded the bowl along the World War II Memorial.
The sun was slipping down over the horizon as they held a prayer vigil and said out loud the names of World War II veteran family members and friends who have died.
Some died during the war, others only days before the trip was taken.
As taps were played, many of the veterans were visibly sobbing.
Dan Curtis, another leader in the Great Bend Honor Flights program, told the men after the service:
"Get ready for another day. The sun comes up tomorrow — ooh-rah!"
As they shuffled out of the memorial, a park ranger quietly told the men:
"Take care, fellas. Thank you for your service."