It was a cold spring day in Washington, D.C., cloudy with whipping winds, as unlike this steamy Fourth of July as possible. But the energy among the group of elderly veterans, their guardians and the Washingtonians who came to welcome them was warm and celebratory.
“We honor each of you at this beautiful World War II Memorial dedicated to you and for your sacrifice during World War II,” one speaker said in welcome to the dozens of veterans. “Over 70 years ago, you answered the call to serve your country, [and] today we enjoy our freedom because of your answering that call and bringing us victory. Thank you.”
In 2011, a group of South Carolina electric cooperatives donated $60,000 to bring rural South Carolina veterans to Washington as part of the Honor Flight Network, a coalition of volunteers and community leaders who have donated time, money and resources to contact and bring the older vets to the nation’s capital.
In April, the group of veterans, clad in bright red jackets, filled the area of the memorial in front of the South Carolina pillar.
Each vet had at least one escort. Their day began with a ceremony at the World War II Memorial before they visited the Iwo Jima, Vietnam and Korean memorials.
See the World
Walter Chelchowski, 87, was one of these veterans.
“I was on the B-17 bombers,” he recalled. “I was on a reconnaissance unit. You know, the most amazing thing that I’ve ever seen was my first time over the Alps from Italy to Germany.
“The clouds are down here,” he gestured low with his hand, “and the Alps way up here.” He gestured again, smiling.
“I got drafted March 10, 1943,” said Chelchowski, a native of Yonkers, N.Y. “Everyone else was going. My friends were going. I [had] no choice. Nothing but women and [those who weren’t eligible for service were] left in town.” He laughed.
He spent his entire 33-year career in the military.
“You see the whole world,” he said. His son followed him into the service. Father and son fished together in Vietnam, where the younger Chelchowski was an airplane engineer and his father ran the commissary.
“I was in an outpost way up north in the hills,” he said. His son was in Saigon, and he would see him occasionally, bearing a package from home.
Birth of a Notion
The idea of the Honor Flights began with retired Air Force Capt. Dr. Earl Morse from Ohio.
“[Morse] was hired by the Department of Veterans Affairs to work in a small clinic in Springfield, Ohio,” the Honor Flight website says. “In May of 2004, the World War II Memorial was finally completed and dedicated in Washington, D.C., and quickly became the topic of discussion among his World War II veteran patients.”
Many vets told Morse that they were determined to see the memorial and that, with help from friends and family, it was only a matter of time before they would get to Washington. Just several months later, the initial optimism had dimmed, Morse noticed.
Many vets — men and women in their late 70s, 80s and 90s — realized that physical and financial limitations might be too much to overcome. For many, it was a trip that was simply out of reach.
Morse, who was a pilot, decided he would not only fly the vets from Ohio to Washington but would spend the day helping them get around the city. He offered one of his patients the opportunity and then another. Each was gracious, grateful and enthusiastic.
Morse took his idea to other pilots in his area to see whether they would be interested in helping out. There are only two criteria to participate in an Honor Flight: It should be at no expense to the veterans, and each veteran should have a guardian for the day.
The first Honor Flight of six planes and 12 veterans took off for the District in January 2005. Morse and his merry band of flyers have now morphed into a nationwide coalition: the Honor Flight Network, with 117 branches or “hubs” in 40 states. The network has flown more than 81,000 veterans, safely and for free, to Washington. In places that commercial airlines don’t service, the network has begun to charter commercial planes — these flights have been dubbed Honor Air.
The overall goal is simple. The network wants to make sure every World War II veteran who wants to can visit their memorial. In 2007, Henderson City and Henderson County, N.C., was the first Honor Flight hub to charter a commercial flight. They were also the first city and county in the country to shepherd all of their World War II vets to D.C. and back.
Closing the Circle
During the April trip, Chelchowski was impressed by the grandeur of the World War II Memorial and with the city itself, where he was stationed for years.
He hadn’t been back, though, since the bicentennial year of 1976.
“You could drive around easy then,” Chelchowski said. “But now it’s different.
“It’s a beautiful memorial,” he said.
Then almost as an afterthought, he said he would like to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“When I was on recruiting [assignment], I recruited a young man. He became like a son to me and my wife. Glenn Lee,” he said. “He was from Hawaii.”
Like Chelchowski, Lee became a pilot. Like Chelchowkski’s son, Lee went to Vietnam. Like thousands of his comrades, Lee never came home.
Walter Chelchowski made his way to the Vietnam memorial, to find the younger man’s name.