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A Flight of Honor

Group takes World War II veterans to Washington DC in honor of their service

How do you tell a story that was told in spectacular and horrific reality some 65 years ago? Not with slabs of granite or the bubbling fountains of a monument. You talk with someone who was there. The story tells itself through the hands that lived it and the hearts that endured. For those of us who are lucky enough to live under freedoms delivered by the men and women who served and fought in World War II, the best we can do is listen and offer our gratitude in their honor.

That’s what Honor Flight does. The organization arranges flights across the country to get World War II veterans to Washington D.C., free of charge, to see the World War II Memorial and other armed services monuments. And, it was the Central Missouri Honor Flight that brought me, through the 1 a.m. November darkness, to the lobby of a Columbia, Mo. hotel

Inside the lobby, there was no middle-of-the-night grogginess. There was only the energy of expectations. Here, some 67 veterans from across mid-Missouri had amassed. Each of them was issued a white Honor Flight t-shirt; they stood and talked with family and each other, rounds of introductions echoing the room.

{gallery}Honor:200:260:1:0{/gallery}Meanwhile, volunteers in blue t-shirts busied themselves with travel logistics. As the volunteers gathered in a separate room for a pre-trip briefing, Central Missouri Honor Flight’s mission was personified by Steve Pausell, vice president of the organization and director of flight operations.

“Today is about much more than visiting a bunch of concrete,” he told the volunteers. “It’s about 65 years ago. Every minute of this trip is about the veterans. If you have a blister on your heel, I don’t care about that. If a veteran has one on his heel, we’ll take care of it.”

Pausell, a former fire chief, has been a part of the Central Missouri Honor Flight since its organization in January, 2009. He’s done this before. In fact, this was the seventh flight of the year for the central Missouri group. Pausell wasn’t being brash in addressing the volunteers (known on the trip as guardians), he was setting a tone. It’s a logistical challenge, this endeavor, and Pausell was explaining that challenges are endured by the staff and guardians, not the veterans. As he wrapped up a list of what was expected of the guardians, Pausell said, “Today is an homage to heroes. They may not remember what you said. They will remember what you did.”

Then to the buses, where I got to sit among the heroes. By coincidence, I begin the trip sitting by J.R. Epperson who lives on a farm just north of Mexico, and just a few miles north of the farm of my upbringing. Epperson served in the U.S. Army in Sicily. His son had flown up from Florida to serve as a guardian on this trip. Epperson told me that this was his first opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. and that he most looked forward to seeing the World War II Memorial now that it is finally finished.

Many of the other veterans on the trip told me the same thing—that they’d never been to Washington D.C. before, and that they had a keen interest in seeing the World War II Memorial.

The memorial wasn’t opened until 2004, nearly 60 years after Allied victory in Europe and the Pacific. There were multiple reasons for its delay. What we’ve come to call the Greatest Generation was, as a group, too humble to agitate for a memorial to what they considered a duty. Meanwhile, time slipped by. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1982, and the Korean War Veterans Memorial in 1986. When a group finally coalesced to push for a World War II Veterans Memorial, it faced problems getting passed in Congress, and then in finding a site and design.

The consequence of such a delay is that many World War II veterans didn’t live long enough to see the memorial. And, there are many who are running out of time. Estimates for the number of World War II veterans we are losing range between 1,000 and 1,500 per day. That’s why the folks at Central Missouri Honor Flight and local Honor Flight hubs across the country have a sense of urgency in their mission.

As our buses rolled close to the St. Louis airport, the Missouri State Patrol joined, escorting our two Honor Flight buses to the terminal. Such simple but moving offerings of respect are a feature of the trip.

Then came the daunting prospect of airport security. It’s a challenge for anyone these days. Plus, a few of our veterans were in wheelchairs, and many hadn’t flown since new security measures have been introduced. Yet with good planning, the Honor Flight guardians made quick work of getting 67 veterans through security. The Transportation Security Administration is aware of the program and works with Honor Flight to expedite the process. It was surprisingly smooth.

Meanwhile, it’s worth a mention that Southwest Airlines has partnered with Honor Flight; the airline’s employees go out of their way to announce to the terminal that a group of veterans are at the gate. For our group, there was applause, and a glint in more than one veteran’s eye.

On the flight to Baltimore, I sat next to John Barton of Kansas City. Barton had volunteered for the Navy as a 17-year-old in 1945. While he had been to Washington D.C. before, he joined this Honor Flight in response to the urging of a friend and fellow veteran. “R.E. Vorhees, you might know him as an auctioneer there in central Missouri, told me that I couldn’t miss this trip. I’d read about these flights but never really thought about going on one, but R.E. convinced me,” said Barton.

Barton’s story reinforced what Steve Pausell had told me earlier. The strongest recruitment and fundraising tool of Central Missouri Honor Flight and other Honor Flight hubs is through word of mouth and local action. This local Honor Flight, Pausell said, was first conceived after a KOMU Channel 8 story by reporter Sara Hill that featured the Sedalia Honor Flight hub. Hill’s story ran in November 2008.

By January 2009, Pausell, along with his wife Sharon and group of organizers had formerly launched an effort for a central Missouri flight.

“We figured we’d take a couple of flights this year and see how it went. The first flight was 35 veterans and 25 volunteers,” he said. “We thought it went well, so we started taking additional applications and donations. Now we’re finishing the season on our seventh flight and we’ve taken 390 veterans to Washington D.C. We’ll resume our efforts in spring when the weather gets better.”

Pausell said that Honor Flight depends on donations from central Missouri. He added that he has been impressed with the generosity that is shown—even in a bad economy—by individuals and small groups. “We get those kind of donations more than money from corporations,” he told the veterans aboard our bus. “Groups like Widows of World War II Veterans, students from the University of Missouri’s Greek Town, bike clubs, rodeos...they all do it because of what you’ve done.”

Our arrival at Baltimore was celebrated by representatives of the national Honor Flight organization along with active duty armed services members, TSA workers and a sizable crowd of civilians. The group applauded every veteran as they came into the gate. It was impossible not to grin back at the veterans who discovered that applause, when directed at you personally, is powerfully emotional.

From there, with an escort by a local Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle club, we made our way to the World War II Memorial. Off the bus, our veterans fanned into the arched entry points (one for the Atlantic Theater and one for the Pacific) and among the wreathed granite pillars to study the detailed bronze bas-relief panels that document war through scenes of the era both civilian and military.

I listened in as veterans told each other how impressive a sight it was. “Really something” was a common comment as was “I’m glad to finally see this.” Orris Hoff, Pleasant Hill, Mo., who served in the Coast Guard, put it like this: “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for my experience in the service, and I wouldn’t do it again for anything. I’ve given money to help build these things in Washington. I’m glad. It’s good to finally see them.”

When our veterans gathered for a group picture, another group formed—a group of picture takers unrelated to our Honor Flight. Something all along the trip—looks from strangers, attitudes of clerks—spoke of tacit appreciation for these veterans. I think the photographers shared that appreciation.

The rest of the day was spent attending other memorials: Air Force, Iwo Jima, Korean War, Vietnam War and the Lincoln Memorial.

On the bus ride to those places, I sat next to Ed Shock of California, Mo. Shock served under General Patton in the European Theater as a forward observer for the 7th Artillery Battalion. We talked about farm boys in the military and making trucks run. Farm boys were prized for the mechanic skills, he said. I asked him how many of his fellow service men he’d stayed in touch with over the years. A strong core group from the 7th had annual reunions for many years, he told me, but they’d stop having them a couple of years ago when only seven people showed up.

“Travel just gets harder,” he said. “And some die.”

After another well-honed trip through airport security in Baltimore, we burned through the night skies back toward Saint Louis. On that flight, Bill Minor of Kirksville, Mo. told me about how he enjoyed burning MP3 music CDs to share with his grandchildren. He said that he also spent time e-mailing friends and family. At 89, Minor seemed something of a technophile. Something you don’t run into every day. Minor was explaining to me that he had a slow Internet connection at home when he casually mentioned he’d gotten shot down over the North Sea in 1944. And that’s when I asked him a few more specific questions about his service.

Minor was a B-24 Liberator pilot with the 445th flying missions out of England. On a mission to Kiel, Germany to bomb a Nazi submarine yard, his aircraft malfunctioned and forced the crew to abort the mission. It was singled out and attacked by ground fire and German fighter planes. Minor said the German pilot that did the final damage on his B-24 cruised up close enough to give him an eye-to-eye look. Shortly after, the B-24’s engines were too shot up to continue. Minor had to bail. He said that he washed up on a Denmark shore to the din of shouting German boys, aged about 14 to 15 years. “They were all right,” shrugged Minor. He became a prisoner of war at in Barth, Germany at Stalag Luft 1, which was liberated by the Russians in 1945.

That’s the generation Honor Flight is celebrating. And that’s why Honor Flight is important. The Bill Minors of the world won’t ask for much. And they might not wear their experiences on their sleeves. But we do owe them mightily.

I asked Minor what he thought of Honor Flight.

“It was a good trip,” he said. And he gave me a card with his personal contact information. “Maybe you can e-mail me a picture.”

Volunteer, participate
or donate to an Honor
Flight near you

Great River Honor Flight
Contact Carlos Fernandez
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Ozarks Honor Flight
Contact Charlie Blake
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Franklin County Honor Flight
Contact Jim Tayon

Show-Me Honor Flight, Sedalia
Contacts Charlie Thomas(660)287-3271
Pam Burlingame (660)553-1080

Central Missouri Honor Flight
Contact Barb Brueggeman
You can “adopt” a central Missouri veteran
by visiting:

Honor Flight Network of Kansas City
Contact Erin Winstead or Valerie Reece
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Greater St. Louis Honor Flight
Contact Jennifer Jackson
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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