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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