A Final Mission: Flying WWII Vets To Their Memorial

With less than 10 percent of World War II veterans still alive, a veterans' support group in Bloomington, Ind., is involved in an urgent effort. It has flown hundreds of vets to see their war's memorial in Washington, D.C.

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The last surviving Medal of Honor recipient for heroic actions on Pearl Harbor day, Lieutenant John Finn, died this past week at the age of 100. Of all the World War II veterans, less than 10 percent are still alive this Memorial Day. And with more passing away each day, the efforts of a veteran's support group in Indiana have grown more urgent.

The group organizes flights to Washington, D.C. so these servicemen and women can visit their war memorial. Earlier this month, Daniel Robison of member station WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana went along with some World War II vets as they traveled to the nation's capitol 65 years after returning home from war.

(Soundbite of airport security)

DANIEL ROBISON: The greatest generation is perhaps airport security's greatest challenge. Artificial knees, hips and pacemakers are setting off these metal detecting wands. It's 6:00 in the morning and Donald Cooter(ph) of Spencer, Indiana stands ready to board the 737 that'll take him to Washington, D.C. for the first time.

Mr. DONALD COOTER (Veteran): It's going to bring back a lot of memories -people I served with and some that lost their lives and a lot of emotions for me. I see some with wheelchairs but, you know, we can sleep tomorrow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBISON: Cooter will spend the day, along with nearly 100 other vets from the region, visiting sites many have only seen on postcards until now.

Mr. MIKE PATE: You know, there was the ticker tapes parades that we all saw on TV, in the newsreels. You know, that was only for a few. Most of these guys didn't get that kind of welcome. And they're going to experience something today that's a welcome that they have never experienced before.

ROBISON: That's Mike Pate, who helped raised the 65,000 needed to cover the vets' travel costs. But flight organizer John Tilford says the economy has hurt donations, resulting in some vets missing out on their chance to go.

Mr. JOHN TILFORD: I have absolutely no pending or standby World War II veterans now. Most of these guys passed away already. And of those remaining alive, a lot of them can't travel. If you don't think about it pretty soon, it's going to be too late.

Unidentified Man #1: Good to see you. Welcome to Washington.

Unidentified Man #2: How are you doing? Thank you.

ROBISON: As soon as the vets step off the plane, a crowd forms and showers them with cheers and salutes - this happens more than a few times during the day. But the fanfare is short-lived, as a 91-year-old vet collapses in the middle of Reagan National Airport. While a vet died during the group's previous flight, this former infantryman spends the day in the hospital as the rest of the group loads onto buses headed to their memorial.

Veteran Ralph Cohen of Kansas City approaches a fountain with battles of the Pacific Theater etched in concrete.

Mr. RALPH COHEN (Veteran): When I look at Okinawa, I know my cousin died on Okinawa. So it's emotional. I didn't think it was much of a big deal before I came. Just the memory, I can't say very much more.

ROBISON: Some cry at the memorial, some tell jokes and others simply get their picture taken and climb back on the tour bus. When the memorial was completed in 2004, a majority of World War II vets had already died and during the trip, many of these vets, who range in age from 80 to 95 years old, say they wish it had been built sooner.

University of Evansville history professor and war memorials researcher James MacLeod says the monument was designed to play many roles and wasn't necessarily built for the ever-disappearing World War II veteran.

Professor JAMES MACLEOD (History, University of Evansville): It reflects, in many ways, the American public attitude to World War II, which was always divorced from reality. That's a memorial that talks about, you know, the big words of war, about patriotism, about nation, honor and glory in ways that maybe make the folks that send people to war happy, but do they really make the people that go to war feel good about it? I'm not so sure.

ROBISON: Trip organizer John Tilford says for vets this trip could be their last and most are thankful to have made it. Barring a dramatic change in fundraising, coupled with enough healthy veterans to make another trip, it could be the last flight this group organizes.

(Soundbite of bagpipes)

ROBISON: As�the plane lands in Indiana, a bagpipe band joins a flag-waving crowd of hundreds on the tarmac. For many, it's the kind of welcome home they didn't receive after the war. One of the first off the plane is the 91-year-old infantryman who collapsed at the airport in Washington. Against doctor's advice, he flew back, determined, he said, not to be the first soldier these vets left behind.

For NPR News, I'm Daniel Robison in Bloomington, Indiana.

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