South Carolina Army veteran John McCarty Sr. takes in the sights of the World War II Memorial in April. One hundred of South Carolina's World War II veterans were visiting the memorial, and many of them were seeing the monument, and flying, for the first time. The trip, known as an "Honor Flight," was sponsored by South Carolina's electric cooperatives, which are a fixture for rural parts of the state.
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.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.