Mel Dickens, 84, got choked up with emotion Wednesday as the bus pulled toward the National World War II Memorial. The WWII former Army corporal from Raleigh got off the bus and strode through the plaza punctuated by granite pillars hung with bronze wreaths. He took a moment to reflect on the 4,048 gold stars that line the west side of the memorial, each representing a hundred Americans who died in the war. He stopped to take a photo at the reflecting pool and gazed at the fountain with the Washington Monument towering behind it.
“This is amazing,” he said. “I don’t usually get emotional like this.”
Dickens then turned to another WWII veteran, former Staff Sgt. Bob Hendrix, 89.
“There it is, North Carolina,” he said. “Come on, Bob, get up under there.”
Dickens and Hendrix were among a group of aging 120 World War II veterans who flew aboard the last “honor flight” to Washington from the military-heavy state of North Carolina. The free trips, organized over the past several years, honor thousands of members of the so-called Greatest Generation, and include visits to “their” memorial and several other monuments. The trips are beginning to dwindle as time runs out on WWII veterans who are still healthy enough to travel.
In the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s flight, eight of the World War II veterans who’d been booked on the trip had to cancel for health reasons. Triangle Flight of Honor director Sunny Johnson said they’d had veterans die within three days of their scheduled flights.
“Our goal was to get as many WWII veterans here as we could,” she said. “This is the last flight for North Carolina. The biggest reason is that we’re running out of veterans who have either not flown or are healthy enough to take a full day — it’s about a 14-hour day — in Washington.”
Triangle Flight of Honor is separate from the well-known national organization Honor Flight Network. That group, which flies out of Charlotte, N.C., already has ended its World War II trips from North Carolina.
Of the more than 16 million Americans who served during World War II, fewer than 2 million are alive today. Estimates are that this generation is dying off at a rate of 1,000 a day.
It took 60 years after World War II ended for the memorial to be built, and many of the war’s veterans have never seen it. The trip is a chance for veterans such as Rene Burtner of Charlotte, who’s 90, to share a day with other veterans, trade stories and finally see the memorial built in their honor. Many also are getting the welcome-home celebrations they never received. Burtner, a former Air Force pilot, said the only one who’d greeted him in 1945 after he’d served two years escorting bombers was the Statue of Liberty.
On Wednesday, he and the other veterans were welcomed to Washington by a 50-member barbershop-style chorus singing patriotic songs and hundreds of supporters who wanted to shake their hands, including Sen. Richard Burr, a Winston-Salem, N.C., Republican, and U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill, N.C., Democrat.
“Everyone is thanking me,” Burtner said. “I want to thank everyone else. I can’t believe what everyone is doing for us. ”
The handshakes, pat on the backs and thank you's continued throughout the day as the group came into contact with more people at the Iwo Jima Memorial, the U.S. Air Force Memorial and Arlington National Ceremony.
Hailey Ward, age 12, asked Dickens and Hendrix whether she and some of her friends could have their photo taken with them.
“I just thought it was important to introduce myself so they know we appreciate what they did,” said Hailey, who was visiting from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “I want them to feel special.”
A retired Air Force captain and physician assistant, realizing that many of his patients were running out of time to visit the memorial, started the honor flights in 2005 in Ohio . Since then, honor flight organizations have flown more than 81,300 veterans to Washington.
More than 5,000 veterans have been flown from North Carolina alone, according to Johnson, by five different groups. More than 820 were flown by the Triangle Flight of Honor and 825 by the Rotary District 7680 Flight of Honor, which took its last flight out of Charlotte in September, according to chairman Kellum Morris.
For each veteran on the plane, the trip was special. For Swede Boreen, it was an opportunity to reflect on those who never made it back.
Boreen was serving on the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when hundreds of Japanese fighters and bombers attacked the naval base.
The 91-year-old veteran from Pinehurst, N.C., still remembers the 7:55 a.m. call.
“General quarters, all hands man your battle stations,” Boreen recalled. He raced to his station.
“When I looked out, I saw the rising sun,” he said, referring to the insignia on Japanese warplanes. He remembers watching the torpedoes drop from the planes into the water and the impact when they struck the ship. He was covered in oil from the explosion. He demonstrated how he wiped his eyes and then climbed up the decks until he could jump in the water. He was one of the few picked up by crew members of the USS Maryland. More than 400 sailors died when the ship capsized.
“I just sat down and cried,” he said. “It’s a day I’ll never forget.”
Although the number of World War II veterans is dwindling, the honor flights may continue, in a way.
Groups such as Triangle Flight of Honor and the Honor Flight Network have considered turning their attention to a younger generation: veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars.