'Honor Flights' Race To Bring WWII Vets To D.C. Memorial

More than 16 million American's fought in World War II. There's only about a million of them who are still alive and they're all older than 80. Hundreds are dying each day. A non-profit group has made it their mission to honor these remaining veterans by flying them to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II memorial. The trip isn't something many veterans at this age can do — or afford — on their own. Since the first "Honor Flight" in 2005, groups in almost every state have followed suit and more than 100,000 vets have taken the journey.

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The 107-year-old veteran Scott mentioned, Richard Overton, also visited Washington, D.C., earlier this year for the very first time. He came on what's known as an Honor Flight. Today, on Veterans Day, we catch up with the nonprofit group that helps World War II veterans visit the memorial built in their honor. Here's Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible)

LINDSEY SMITH, BYLINE: It's almost five in the morning. It's cold and still dark in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It takes about 45 minutes to load 21 veterans, 15 wheelchairs and 22 helpers onto a charter bus.

BOBBI BRADLEY: Good morning, everybody. How are we doing?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Good morning.

SMITH: That cheery, caffeinated voice is Bobbi Bradley, president of the Honor Flight hub in Kalamazoo. This is the group's first mission. It had to raise more than $30,000 to pull it off. The donations cover the cost of the day trip for all the veterans on board, who are well within their 80s. Bradley says the trip isn't something many of these vets can physically do on their own. On average, more than 600 World War II veterans die every day.

BRADLEY: So for them, it's really - we've got to get them there as quick as we can, and people see that. They know that. They understand that.

SMITH: Since the first Honor Flight in 2005, groups in 43 states have followed suit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE A GRAND OLD FLAG")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Every heart beats true for the red, white and blue. Where there's never a boast or a brag.

SMITH: After the charter flight to D.C. and a second airport greeting, the group follows a police escort to the memorial for the Second World War. 87-year-old Kenneth Wells takes his time walking passed rows of servicemen and women a quarter his age, all standing at attention. He remembers joining the Marines in 1944 with one of his best friends.

KENNETH WELLS: He went to Iwo Jima, got a bullet to the head, you know, just like that. I wouldn't have been here if I'd have gone with him.

SMITH: Instead, in 1945, Wells was sent to fight on the front lines at Okinawa.

WELLS: You know, we went in there with about 250 in our company and came out with 29. Yeah. Replacements would come in that morning. And you'd never get to know them. And that night, you'd say, hey, whatever happened to those two guys that came in this morning? And they were gone already.

SMITH: After two months, Wells was critically injured by a mortar blast. He wears a bright purple jacket emblazoned with a purple heart on the back. Throughout the day, people approach him, thank him for his service, shout out a quick semper fi.

At the memorial for the battle of Iwo Jima, a man asks several veterans for their autograph and where they served. 88-year-old Dick Norr can't resist telling one of his favorite war stories. It's May 8th, 1945, and Norr is standing guard at an outpost in Germany.

DICK NORR: Sargent of the guard came by and he says, hey, you know, the war is over. The war is over. I had such a feeling of euphoria. You know, I couldn't hold it. I wanted to tell somebody so bad.

SMITH: Norr says an old German man came walking down the road.

NORR: I wanted to tell him something, so I said, krieg finish. And we hugged and danced, both of us right there.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Like an old friend?

NORR: Oh, I was so happy.

SMITH: After a long day in D.C., the veterans fly back to Michigan the same night.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you so much. Welcome home.

SMITH: They're astonished to see hundreds of people, most of them strangers, welcoming them back home to Kalamazoo. The wheelchairs are paraded through the cheering crowd. Dick Norr can't push back tears.

NORR: I feel so humbled. I feel overwhelmed. I've never had such a day in my life.

SMITH: 100,000 World War II veterans have made this same journey. It's cost several million dollars. Many say it's a day they'll never forget. For NPR news, I'm Lindsey Smith in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

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