DECATUR, Ill.- An overwhelming outpouring of appreciation and affection greeted the landing of the Central Illinois Honor Flight airplane in the rain Sunday night at the Decatur Airport as World War II veterans returned from a weekend trip to Washington, D.C., and the World War II Memorial.
Veterans stepped off the plane to a huge gathering of handclapping, cheering friends, neighbors, family members and patriotic people. Inside, people were wall-to-wall with more emotional responses.
The veterans first experienced such appreciation Saturday inside Reagan International Airport in Washington as people young and old lined the aisles with applause, hand shaking, flag-waving and "Thank you for your service" wishes.
Wherever they went in Washington, there was recognition and people greeting the veterans with salutes. It was an all-expenses-paid trip for the 68 veterans from Decatur, the Decatur area and from as far away as St. Louis. Each was accompanied by a guardian who took care of every need. The guardians paid $500 for the privilege. I had two guardians, Robbie and Pete Wetzel. I'm spoiled.
Come with me on this Veterans Day adventure, the 22nd Central Illinois Honor Flight:
DAY 1: The veterans reported at the Decatur Airport at 5 a.m. Each received an orange polo shirt, a baseball-type cap with the words "World War II veteran" and a goody bag filled with useful items, including a pocket camera. Breakfast on the plane was courtesy of McDonald's.
After a smooth flight and the Washington welcome, three bus loads head for the Air Force Memorial adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, featuring three curved spires soaring into the sky, the tallest 270 feet. One of the appreciative veterans was John Kent from Mount Vernon. He was a Marine Air Force mechanic in the South Pacific. Claude Young of Forsyth, 90, was in radar.
The second stop is at the Arlington National Cemetery to see the noon changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Solder. It's always impressive no matter how many times you are there.
Next stop, the Iwo Jima Memorial, a stunning sculpture depicting the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi. Al Thompson, 89, of Clinton has an Iwo Jima plaque he crafted. He was in the Navy for three years on a destroyer and submarine tender.
Lunch en route to the Navy Memorial in downtown Washington is courtesy of Arby's. Navy veterans on the trip included Charles Bartscht of Shelbyville, a machinist; Noble Wright of Assumption, in communications, who appeared on NBC News; Graham Bradley of Decatur; Lester Myers of Decatur, a ship fitter who also was a member of the Seabees, a construction outfit; Barney Melvin of Shelbyville; Leonard Edwards of Decatur, a mechanic who joined at age 17; Claude Thompson, 92, of Decatur who was in the battle of Midway, and who enlisted with Ken Park of Decatur in December 1941; Norman Stewart of Decatur, who helped take in troops and supplies at Okinawa; Wilmer L. Clifton of Mount Zion; Richard Brown of Bethany; and John Stickles of Decatur. Harry Carlson of Decatur was in the Coast Guard and Millie Biggs of Hazel Dell was in WAVES as a cryptographer.
The next stop is at the National Museum of American History to see the original Star Spangled Banner of 1812 and World War II exhibits.
Then we head to the hotel and dinner on the 16th floor. The entree is my favorite: meatloaf accompanied by mashed potatoes followed by carrot cake. Early bedtime awaited us.
DAY 2: It's Sunday, Veterans Day. Up at 5:45 a.m. for a 7 a.m. bus call. Breakfast is on the bus, again courtesy of Arby's. We head for the World War II Memorial and a ceremony in which the Central Illinois Honor Flight members are guests of honor. It's chilly, but never fear, the Don Niehart-organized trip is never caught short. We are supplied with quilted blankets made by an Effingham group, plus gloves and stocking caps as we sit and wait for the ceremony to begin,
The speaker is U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, who started the legislation for the World War II Memorial. Honored are Earl Morse and Jeff Miller, originators of the Honor Flight in Ohio. The Honor Flight is now in 40 states.
After the ceremony, we tour the memorial and concentrate on veterans congregating under the Illinois pillar.
Then we visit the Lincoln/Korean/Vietnam memorials. The Korean memorial features 19 lifelike stainless steel figures representing a squad on patrol.
Lunch is another box of Arby's sandwich food as we head for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Va., next to Dulles Airport, a highlight for many of the veterans. We see the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the space shuttle Discovery. There are more than 170 planes and space vehicles on display.
As darkness falls, we head back to the airport for a short wait and then the flight to Decatur, punctuated by mail call, in which a veteran receives mail from family members and schoolchildren.
How was it? "Great, awesome, the best ever," the veterans are unanimous.
REUNIONS: Wayne Cruitt, 85, of Findlay, who enlisted in the Navy while a junior in high school, is surprised to be greeted by his son, Stan, and grandson, Jason, from North Carolina. Stan Cruitt was a member of the Presidential Honor Guard Company while in the Army. He caught President Richard Nixon once when Nixon slipped on ice and was privileged to hold Tricia Nixon's dog on a leash when she was having a conversation.
Bob Flaugher of Decatur, a Navy veteran, was surprised to talk with one of his former students, Lesa Clanton Crane of Alexandria, Va., who saw an advance story on the Honor Flight posted on Facebook.
ONE OF A KIND: Richard Farrow, 83, of Godfrey lied about his age and served in the Army Transportation Corps in World War II, at age 16, served two years in the Navy in the Korean War and served in the Air Force in the Vietnam War as a flight engineer and pilot. He has nearly 10,000 hours of pilot time, was also a missionary bush pilot in Kenya, Africa, pastor of a church in Spain, a schoolteacher and now works for a Baptist church group.