WWII vets are young warriors again on Honor Flight

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Mark Wineka
WASHINGTON, D.C. ó We know these men from the lives they built daily back home, among us. Lee Bradley was a highway patrolman and officer in the Rowan County Sheriff’s Department.
Charlie Swink amazingly still sells cars at Cloninger Ford in Salisbury. He’s 91. Don Carter ran Summersett Funeral Home for decades. Bill Stanback became head of his family’s headache powder company.
Clyde Young toiled for decades as a Salisbury dentist. Leon Bradshaw oversaw a successful construction business. Carl Hobbs and C.E. Spires worked in textiles; Frank Couch, as a handyman in Mocksville.
 John Derr was a carpet installer. These men and other World War II veterans walked last Tuesday into the Ronald Reagan National Airport terminal and were greeted like conquering heroes, which they had been a long time ago. They were taken aback. Far from their homes in North Carolina, the veterans asked themselves why these people in the nation’s capital were making such a fuss. They basically had come to see the World War II Memorial because for many it would be the first and last time. “Just coming off the airplane, I got tears in my eyes,” said Derr, a resident of Charlotte whose six-year stint in the Navy included a tour on the aircraft carrier USS Independence. – – – Later, as they walked and wheeled within the World War II Memorial, the stone shrine took the veterans back to when they were bulletproof youngsters with no idea what the next day or minute might bring.
Their homes then were submarines, destroyers, aircraft carriers, tanks, foxholes, bunkers and bases. They soldiered in European and Asian locations whose names they often couldn’t spell or pronounce. They were cocksure ó who isn’t at that age?
But they also had time to think of their own mortality. “Put it in the paper that anybody who says he wasn’t scared, they’re lying,” Bradley said. We see these men today ó all of them well into their 80s ó and it’s hard to picture Bradley in a Navy torpedo bomber over the Pacific. Or Couch in a Salisbury, England, hospital recovering from serious wounds suffered when he got too close to a German mortar near Paris. Carter and Spires were jumping out of planes as Army paratroopers, while Stanback and his USS Gandy crewmates patrolled the Atlantic Ocean for German submarines. Hobbs, a rifleman in the 79th infantry, kept marching and fighting for Gen. George “Blood and Guts” Patton. “Our blood and guts won the war,” said Hobbs, who was awarded two Purple Hearts and four Battle Stars. – – – As the veterans left the plane at Reagan National, a long line of Navy officers in gold-braided dress uniform shook their hands and thanked them.

Reaching the terminal gate, they heard the Falls Church Concert Band playing a rousing welcome. A sizeable throng of people lined a path on both sides for the veterans. They waved U.S. flags, and the applause and rhythmic clapping with the band never stopped. Young, known in Salisbury for his trumpet playing, pulled the instrument from its case and joined in. During the plane trip, he also had moved up and down the aisle playing service tunes for the passengers.
In the terminal, complete strangers walked up, shook the veterans’ hands, hugged them and said thanks. Dignitaries greeted them, dignitaries including former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, whose wife, former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, had accompanied the 105 veterans from Charlotte. U.S. Rep. Mel Watt also was on hand.
An escort of police and Rolling Thunder motorcycles, traveling in columns, escorted the veterans’ four motor coaches from the airport into Washington. Traffic was stopped in every direction. “They know the Greatest Generation is coming through,” yelled Jerry Swicegood, who had accompanied his friend Couch on the trip as a guardian. “This is for you, guys.” n n nAfter her election loss last November, Salisbury native Elizabeth Dole looked for the best way to pay tribute to her late brother, John Hanford, a World War II veteran who died after a long fight with cancer in April 2008. She decided to sponsor the John Hanford Memorial Honor Flight from Charlotte to Washington, and it all came together in a remarkable way.
Bunny Hanford, John’s widow, described the gorgeous fall day and what it encompassed as “beyond anything we could believe.” “I wish he were here to be one of the hundred,” Jody Hanford added of his late father, who attended the World War II Memorial’s dedication in 2004. John Hanford served on the USS Saratoga, which saw heavy action in the war. “I just can’t say what an impact he had on my life,” Elizabeth Dole said of her older brother. Counting guardians, Hanford family members and media, the trip included 186 people, and Dole’s donation to Rotary District 7680 Flight of Honor made it possible. Rotarians in the district also sponsored flights this year.
Faced with the loss of roughly 1,000 aging World War II veterans a day, the Flights of Honor try to offer an all-expense, one-day trip for veterans to see their memorial before it’s too late. Jeff Miller, Honor Flight Network founder, said Tuesday’s trip, thanks to Elizabeth Dole’s sponsorship and attention to detail, was probably the most elaborate ever. Dole provided special ballcaps, trip medallions and buttons. She arranged for the U.S. Marines’ silent drill team to perform at lunch, made a DVD of veterans’ memories about the war and accompanied the trip start to finish ó even chartering a bus for her and local veterans between Salisbury and Charlotte.
The trip had its own Web site. At lunch, Bob Dole presented 88-year-old Couch with a new Purple Heart. The one presented to Couch back in the English hospital years ago had disappeared. Couch was speechless. “It was simply great, every minute of it,” said Lexington veteran Ralph Shaw, a ball turret gunner in the war. “Everything was just planned perfect.” The veterans’ day also included stops at the Iwo Jima Memorial and Arlington Cemetery, where they stayed for the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
They drove by the U.S. Navy and Air Force memorials, besides many of the other Washington landmarks, the history of which was described by city tour guides on each bus. On their return in Charlotte, another heroes’ welcome awaited them, thanks to Charlotte Fire Department bagpipers, Boy Scout troops, high school ROTC units and the USO. Elizabeth Dole said she felt her own emotions rise to the surface in hearing the bagpipes play “Amazing Grace,” for it was a day full of grace.
Flight of Honor trips typically include two medics and a physician, besides the “guardians” who are assigned to look after the veterans’ needs. It’s difficult not to notice the wheelchairs, walkers, oxygen tanks and hearing aids many of today’s World War II veterans rely on. Before they left Washington for the return trip, veterans’ motor coaches stopped at the World War II Memorial for one more look as dusk closed in.
Nothing was said from the bus I was in. In the silence, I felt I was again in the presence of very young men.