World War II veterans take Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.

Once you’ve seen it, it is difficult to believe there was ever any controversy about building the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

It is a monument that was way overdue, but now that it’s here, there is a rush to get World War II veterans there to see it in person.

FOX6’s Ted Perry, along with photojournalist Jeremy Mews were recently invited to hop aboard a Stars and Stripes honor flight, where veterans are taken to D.C. to see the monument up close.

Seventy years ago, World War II vets were marching across Europe and sailing across the Pacific, and recently, the generation that just wanted to look forward was asked to board a plane and look back.

Joe Dean is captain of the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, which tries, as often as it can, to make sure members of the World War II generation feel the gratitude of those who are living lives those veterans made possible.

“They never asked for a ‘thank you,’ but we feel they so richly deserve one,” Dean said.

The Honor Flight is a short flight to Washington, D.C., and when the veterans landed at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, many of them didn’t quite know what to make of the volunteer welcoming committee, which consisted of civilians and current military members.

Carl Zimmerman is a face familiar to generations of Milwaukeeans. Before he became a news anchor at FOX6, he was Captain Carl Zimmerman, working as a correspondent for Military News Services. Zimmerman covered troops from Africa to Europe during World War II, and was a part of this Honor Flight.

The first stop of the day for the veterans was the World War II Memorial, on the National Mall in D.C. Like the men and women it honors, it is dignified, classic, sturdy and honest, and it doesn’t hide the fact that war takes lives: 400,000 American lives, in the case of World War II.

At 84, Whitefish Bay’s Jerry Hill was the youngest member of the Honor Flight. Hill joined the Merchant Marines as soon as he could, as the war was winding down. Hill was, at times, choked up at the site of the monument itself, and the effort made to bring him and other war veterans to D.C. to see it.

“Speechless as to how beautifully orchestrated this day has been,” Hill said.

Zimmerman and his son Rich searched the Wisconsin pillar of the memorial, and memories from years ago started to flow back.

“I got so close to these guys in the infantry. In the front lines, that’s where there’s a true love and caring for one another. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Zimmerman said.

After a group photo, the group of veterans moved on to other sites, including a memorial built to honor World War II Marines.

Veteran Charlie Bilda worked on a ship with one mission: finding enemy mines, before they found American battleships. Bilda says he was a job he didn’t volunteer for, but didn’t run from either.

“We weren’t heroes. We were required to do it, because it was our duty and that’s why I appreciate these guys,” Bilda said.

The last stop of the day: Arlington National Cemetery, which is the final resting place for so many who served. Many of the veterans realize their tombstone could have been etched decades ago.

“We all talked about the same thing: the fact that we’re here and a lot of guys didn’t make it, so these are all bonus years,” one veteran said.

While at Arlington, there was a lot of reflection on death, as 900 World War II veterans die each day.

As the men boarded the plane for the flight home, there was another surprise. Honor Flight organizers secretly gathered letters from the men’s families and close friends – letters of thanks, respect, and admiration.

“These letters are unbelievable, from my grandchildren and my daughters, and they’re saying how proud they are of me,” one veteran said.

18 hours after leaving Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, the veterans were back, and greeting them at the gate were dozens of current military servicemen and women, standing tall in full salute.

The final surprise of the day was a huge “welcome home” pep rally in the airport terminal, with hundreds of people – some family, most not.

It costs more than $500 to fly, feed, and move each of the veterans around the nation’s Capitol, and that money comes entirely from donations.

There are currently more than 400 veterans on a waiting list, hoping to get on an upcoming flight.

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