The Edmond Sun
For someone who’s used to the alarm clock going off much later in the morning, at first arising at 3:45 a.m. the morning of Oct. 24 seemed like an inconvenience. But then I thought about the schedule of World War II veterans who served in combat zones.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, 16 million Americans served during the war; by the end of the war more than 288,000 women were in the U.S. armed forces, according to the National World War II Museum. Many soldiers had the experience of sleeping in foxholes and experiencing every type of weather imaginable — jungle heat in Burma, a Scandinavian winter, African desert dryness, hail storms, typhoons. Battles were fought around the clock.
About 5 a.m., I arrived at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City. Not long after that, the charter buses carrying 99 Oklahoma WWII veterans and their “guardians” (family members) arrived, escorted by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and flag-bearing Patriot Riders. For organization’s sake, the veterans all wore blue Oklahoma Honor Flights shirts, the guardians red shirts. Volunteers called bus captains made sure all veterans got on their assigned charter bus.
After exiting the buses, a Transportation Security Administration worker welcomed the veterans with a thank you and a handshake — they also received the same warmth from Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, of Edmond, Lt. Gen. Harry M. “Bud” Wyatt III (former Oklahoma adjutant general, present director of the Air National Guard at the Pentagon), volunteer members of the Oklahoma Honor Flights ground crew, groups in the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport terminal and volunteers at the National World War II Memorial. At the end of the day they were welcomed by about 100 supporters who included family members and military service members. They came at about 10 p.m. on a weeknight to honor these heroes.
During the Miami Air International charter flight to Washington, I sat by two terrific Oklahomans — Jim Slack, of Tulsa, a risk management professional, and Joanne Olson, of Enid, a registered nurse. Jim’s dad, Kenneth Slack, of Enid, served in the Army Air Corps; Joanne’ dad, Harvey Olson, also served in the Army Air Corps.
After arriving in Washington, the first stop was the National World War II Memorial. It’s located on prime real estate between the Lincoln Memorial on one side and the Washington Monument on the other. Sunlight sparkled off the water of a large, oval-shaped pool surrounded by granite pillars. A volunteer described the meaning of the elements to one of the Oklahoma veterans and thanked him for his service.
Then it was off to other stops, which included seeing the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington Cemetery and a memorial honoring the veterans who fought at Iwo Jima. A stunning statue there depicts five Marines raising the flag atop the 546-foot Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, following a hard-fought bloody battle with Japanese forces (the related famous photograph was taken by a photographer with Leatherneck Magazine). The tiny volcanic island, located halfway between Japan and the Mariana Islands, was used by the Japanese as an early warning station and then by Americans as an emergency landing strip for damaged bombers. In 36 days of fighting, 6,140 Marines and Navy personnel were killed; about 22,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors perished.
Our day in Washington ended at the National Air Force Memorial, located on a promontory in Arlington, Va. There all 99 veterans assembled for a group photograph in front of three stainless steel spires that soar skyward, the tallest reaching a height of 270 feet. More than 54,000 airmen have died in combat while serving in the Air Force, according to information from the memorial. During the war, more than 400,000 Americans were killed; more than 73,000 Americans remain unaccounted for, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Every 90 seconds, a memory of WWII — its sights, its terrors and triumphs — disappears; the men and women who defeated tyranny are in their 80s and 90s, dying at the rate of 740 a day, according to U.S. Veterans Administration figures. By 2016, there will be less than 100,000 veterans left.
This was the last Oklahoma Honor Flights trip for 2012. The next flight leaves April 17 from Tulsa. A total of three flights are scheduled in 2013 to honor another 300 Oklahoma men and women who helped change the world. More than 230 veteran applications were awaiting flights; more arrive each day. As of Oct. 6, Oklahoma Honor Flights had taken 1,005 WWII veterans on 10 flights.
For more information on how to have a veteran go on the trip or to support Oklahoma Honor Flights, call 259-9000 or visit oklahomahonorflights.org.
Businesses and individuals sponsor Oklahoma Honor Flights trips to Washington. They are too many to mention here, but they are to be commended for partnering in this effort as are the many volunteers. Honor Flight’s mission is to transport Oklahoma veterans to the nation’s capital to visit those memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifice.
MARK SCHLACHTENHAUFEN is a reporter for The Edmond Sun. He was asked by the Oklahoma Press Association to cover the most recent Honor Flight as a pool reporter for association member newspapers.