By Marie Gilmore
The members of our Greatest Generation are aging. Each day, over 700 WWII Veterans across the United States are passing away. For young men and women, who were 17 years old at the tail end of WWII in 1945, they are now 85 years old. The average age of a WWII Veteran is 90.
Honor Flight of West Central Florida, whose sole purpose is to take these Veterans to their memorial in Washington, D.C. for the day and get them home safe, is battling the urgency and fighting to beat the clock to get the Veterans to D.C.
The urgency is because the World War II Memorial was a long time coming and was only completed five years ago. Due to that recent completion, most of the WWII Vets have never seen their memorial, honoring the 400,000 American lives lost fighting in that war.
HFWCF, run entirely by volunteers, and headed by 21-year Air Force Veteran James Haake, has been taking our local vets to D.C. for two years.
“To date, we have taken 466 WWII Vets and guardians to their memorial in Washington, D.C.,” said Haake. “We still have 600 completed applications from Veterans and we fly 75 Vets at a time. We have enough Veterans to complete eight more flights but we need funding.”
Each flight, which takes 75-78 WWII Veterans for free and 75-78 volunteer guardians who take care to pamper and serve the Vets for the day and who pay $400 to cover their individual expenses for the day, requires an additional $25,000 in corporate funding to get off the ground.
The flights typically leave from St. Pete/Clearwater Airport on the very supportive Alligient Air, but American Airlines has also expressed interest in helping.
To become a guardian, visit www.honorflightwcf.org or contact Haake at 842-5843.
For this, my second flight, seven local community members took the trip including Rob Silver, Paul and Tammy Holmberg, Craig Polley and Dr. Chad and Leesa Polley.
On this flight, 88-year-old Army Infantry Veteran Bruce Grabert was my Veteran. Bruce joined the army in 1943 after he was drafted and denied entry into the Navy at the age of 17 because of something wrong with his feet. Three months later, the Army called and said they would take him anyway. Bruce married his high school sweetheart 7 days before deploying to France for a year where he fought in the trenches on a cannon crew during the Battle of the Bulge. Bruce and his wife have now been married 68 years and live in Sun City Center. After coming home from the Army and serving two more years, Bruce went into sales and retired to Sun City.
“This has just been a wonderful day,” described Bruce coming home from D.C. “I just can’t believe people would become guardians just for us.”
Each of the 78 WWII Veterans on the flight were true Living Histories of the significance of the past which secured our freedoms for now and for the future.
In addition to our Vets, a WWII Flying Ace was on our flight. Capt. Abner Aust is written up in Textbooks as the last Flying Ace of WWII. He shot down 8 enemy planes in WWII and stayed inservice to fly 300 combat missions in Vietnam.
There are currently 600 more Living Legends who have filled out applications and qualified to take this memorable day trip. But funding has restricted the number of flights. $25,000 is needed to get each flight off the ground and the remainder of each trip’s cost is made up from the guardians. There are no paid staff at Honor Flight, only volunteers committed to making this trip happen. To get involved, visit www.honorflightwcf.org.