Earl Morse, a retired Air Force captain and a physicians assistant for Ohio’s Department of Veteran Affairs, is working to make World War II veterans’ dreams come true.
In 2005, Morse offered to personally fly one of his veteran patients to Washington, D.C., to see the new World War II Memorial.
The generous and unexpected opportunity brought tears to his patient’s eyes. That offer began Morse’s journey to cofound the Honor Flight Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to giving World War II veterans the chance to visit their memorial. It is estimated that 1,000 of these heroes pass away every day.
In the organization’s first year, 137 veterans were flown to Washington free of charge. By 2009, the number of World War II veteran participants had skyrocketed to 11,137.
“Our program has struck a chord with the American public. It took 65 years to build [the World War II] memorial,” said Morse. “[The veterans] deserve it and they deserve to visit their memorial.”
When the veterans land in Washington, they are greeted with the music of the World War II era and hundreds of volunteers and troops of all generations.
“When we got off the plane at Reagan Airport, I cried,” said Edward “Edd” Durick, an Army private who had been stationed in the Philippines during World War II. “I didn’t think that many people would be there.”
The Honor Flight Network gives veterans an opportunity they may otherwise never experience. And they are in good hands while they’re in Washington.
“Every need is met for the veterans,” said Carol Waldrop, a volunteer with the Honor Flight Network of Southeast Florida. “On every flight there are doctors and paramedics, so we have a complete medical staff and can meet just about any need.”
The first stop in Washington for many Honor Flight groups is Arlington National Cemetery, where theveterans watch the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Lunch is then served at the Women’s War Memorial on the cemetery grounds. The veterans chat and joke with each other, reminiscing about their days in the service.
The group then heads to the World War II Memorial—the anticipation building as the memorial comes into sight. The memorial represents their service to the country and reassures them that their sacrifices will never be forgotten.
On a recent trip from southern Florida, Army Corporal Alfred Morfee, who had been part of the “Big Red One” during World War II, said it best as he gazed across the crowded memorial grounds, “God Bless America.”
“As beautiful as the memorial is, what we hear [the veterans] talk about the most is the fact that the country cares and they see that,” said Todd Tucker, a lieutenant with the Martin County Fire and Rescue in Stuart, Florida, and a board member of the Honor Flight Network of Southeast Florida.
As the veterans from each Honor Flight explore their memorial, strangers stop to shake their hands and thank them for their service. “They are treated like rock stars,” said Morse. “They receive standing ovations everywhere they go.”
But there is one rock star the veterans themselves are eager to find—Kilroy. And he is there.
The iconic figure of a bald man, his nose and fingers visible over an imaginary wall, and the accompanying text, “Kilroy Was Here,” is carved inconspicuously into the memorial, overlooked by many, but not veterans of World War II.
There’s much debate about Kilroy’s origin, but the presence of the figure and the phrase on numerous pieces of captured American equipment during World War II led Adolf Hitler to believe Kilroy might be the code name of a high-level Allied spy.
Today, there are literally thousands of Honor Flight Network volunteers at more than 99 hubs across the country. Morse credits the network’s success to this network of support.
He and his team hope to continue paying tribute to the Greatest Generation, as well as veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars, and eventually, veterans of more recent wars.
“I think it’s magnificent,” said Dorothy Fenton, a medical corps surgical technician during World War II, of her experience with the onor Flight Network. “I think everyone should have a chance to do it.”
Colleen Beaudette is a former Editorial Assistant for ON★PATROL.