Mission complete: Honor Flight Bluegrass sends 82 WWII, Korean, and Vietnam War veterans to Washington D.C to visit their respective memorials
Time is of the essence to honor those remaining from what's known as the "Greatest Generation". In Kentucky, there are only about 2,000 WWII veterans still living and the youngest among them are in their early to mid-90s.
The non-profit Honor Flight flew eight of them to Washington D.C. on Wednesday, all expenses paid, to visit the memorial built as a tribute to the nation’s WWII heroes.
Also on the trip were 11 Korean War and 63 Vietnam War veterans.
The entertainment group Ladies for Liberty, which performs at military events throughout the U.S. and Europe, energized a sleepy 5:00 a.m. crowd at the Louisville International Airport with a rendition of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy".
Eight WWII veterans arrived before daylight, some on canes, others in wheelchairs, ready to embark on a daylong trip to the nation’s capital.
The oldest among them was 100-year-old Lee Robertson of Bowling Green who swayed back and forth as Ladies for Liberty sang. The trio moved in to serenade Robertson in his wheelchair. He had a boyish wide grin and blushed a little.
“Sure enjoying listening to those gals sing," Robertson said. "Those are the songs I grew up with.”
Robertson said the music took him back to his time in WWII when, in his words, the U.S. was going in one direction, regardless of politics.
The veterans, many of them traveling with their grown children, polished off coffee and doughnuts while getting a TSA briefing.
”All we ask is that you don’t have any knives in your pockets, maybe any leftover grenades or anything like that," joked TSA agent Rick Tellis.
Then, it was time to board the plane bound for Washington D.C. A flag brigade waved them off through security.
An hour-and-a-half later, the American Airlines flight touched down in the nation’s capital. The welcome began before they stepped off the plane with a water cannon salute on the tarmac from the local fire department. The veterans entered Reagan National Airport to patriotic music and applause.
Lee Robertson's jaw dropped as he was wheeled into the airport.
"The flags were waving and I was surprised and shocked," Robertson said. "That showed loyalty and patriotism.”
The veterans board shuttle buses bound for the WWII memorial with a police escort.
“Thank you for your service. Good morning," said locals as the veterans unloaded outside the WWII memorial. "Welcome to Washington.”
In the crowd was U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.
“Many of them remind me of my father-in-law. He served for 20 years as an enlisted guy in the Air Force," Paul said. "I like meeting them, and it’s a great bunch of guys.”
Lee Robertson and his son made their way over to the memorial, an oval-shaped plaza with a fountain. The tribute featured 56 pillars that represent U.S. states and territories, as well as a pair of arches for the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.
The Robertsons snapped a photo in front of the Kentucky pillar. Steve said the significance of standing there wasn’t lost on him.
“He was in a hot zone for 18 months or so. His service overseas was almost three years. New Guinea, Philippine Islands, Morotai, and four beachhead landings," Steve Robertson explained. "It was quite significant, looking around today and seeing how free we are.”
"And now, when I think about those tough days in combat, it was fun," Lee Robertson said. "The reason it was fun is I’m a people person. My tank crew, the five of us in there were from Texas, Salt Lake City, Wisconsin, Chicago, North Dakota, and Calhoun, Ky."
Robertson was drafted into the military six months after graduating from high school. He served as a driver in the Army’s 44th tank battalion from 1942-45.
Robertson and his former WWII comrades lined up in their wheelchairs for a picture, reminisced, and swapped war stories. They didn’t know each other before today, but in Robertson’s words, they’re brothers now.
“These guys, we came out of the same ball of wax."
"If I’m your brother, can I borrow 20 bucks?," quipped WWII veteran Theodore Curtis of Paducah.
The WWII veterans, along with former service members from the Korean and Vietnam wars, also spent the day visiting their respective memorials, as well as the Arlington National Cemetery, the Marine Corps War Memorial, and the Air Force Memorial.
The veterans returned to the airport to depart for home, and while they waited to load, an old-fashioned mail call was held, the perfect throwback to end the day.
Volunteers shouted names and passed out mail at the gate. Prior to the trip, Honor Flight asked family and friends of the veterans to write their loved ones as a surprise.
Robertson held a manilla office folder in his lap that contained letters and cards, some homemade from his great-grandchildren.
"That’s from my daughter," Robertson said, referring to one of the letters in his folder. "Dad, your family is so proud of your service and so grateful you came home safely. We love you, Melinda," the card read.
Receiving mail that day reminded him how thrilled he was to hear from family as a 19-year-old serving in the South Pacific.
"Sometimes people never received any mail, it was so sad," he recalled. "We read our letters to everybody. It was one of the great times.”
Robertson had one more surprise before the day ended. As the veterans arrived back to the Louisville airport at 10:00 pm., several hundred friends, family, and strangers line the concourse to say, "Welcome home, soldier."
“I’m overwhelmed. I even got a bouquet. Aren’t they pretty," Robertson said in excitement. "Great day! I don’t know I deserved it, but I sure do appreciate it.”
The red, white, and blue wave high as the 100-year-old Robertson and others from the Greatest Generation experienced the thanks of a grateful nation.
Jeff Thoke, chairman of Honor Flight Bluegrass, said time is running out for the nation to say thank you to those who served in WWII.
“We lose up to 300 a day," Thoke said. "Just in the last year, looking at the statistics, we’ve lost 100,000 WWII veterans, but think about it, they’re all 95, 96 years of age. In five years, 95% of all the WWII veterans will be gone.”
Honor Flight Bluegrass flies veterans at no cost to Washington D.C. with priority given to the WWII vets. The non-profit's next trip is scheduled for May 2023.