There are many stories that are too often told and then there are those that cannot be told enough.
One such story is that of the sacrifices our fighting men and women make so that United States citizens can continue to enjoy those rights granted by our Founding Fathers: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
No words could describe the debt of gratitude that is owed to every soldier who paid, often with life or limb; nor can that debt ever be repaid, at least not in full.
It is therefore incumbent upon each individual to do what they can to atone for those losses, and to acknowledge the value of their service is priceless.
Just ask any Honor Flight Grand Strand/Myrtle Beach volunteer, who range in age from pre-school to retirement.
Honor Flight Grand Strand/Myrtle Beach Chairman Walter Kollet is a long-timer who learned of the organization through a neighborhood newsletter.
“It just asked for volunteers to help the veterans. I didn’t know what was needed, I just wanted to help,” he said.
Help he has, by answering myriad calls of “can you do this ...” – requests that, in his mind, are a small price to pay for the rewards he has reaped.
“Every time we have a flight, the stories that I get out of it and letters of thanks from vets who gave so much are incredible,” he said. “We’re trying to give them the homecoming they never received. They might have been met by a few Red Cross volunteers with coffee and doughnuts when they got off the boat and then were loaded on the buses and sent home. It wasn’t a ticker tape parade reception for everyone.”
That’s an oversight that also rankles Conway Middle School eighth-grader Julia Crafton. Her involvement with Honor Flight began with a school project of writing letters to be given out to WWII veterans during the flight.
“The veterans got no respect. There was no big celebration for these people who shaped our nation,” she said.
Her mission is to make sure that veterans like John Atkinson Sr. have the best day of their lives and one that they will never forget.
It sounds like a tall order, but one that Honor Flight Grand Strand/Myrtle Beach has delivered on time and again for so many deserving WWII veterans.
Honor Flight was created by Earl Morse, a retired Air Force captain, and the inaugural flight was in May 2005. Each veteran is accompanied by a guardian – a friend, family member or volunteer – and each flight is welcomed home by community crowds, also volunteers.
Honor Flight Grand Strand/Myrtle Beach was founded by U.S. Navy (Ret.) veteran Bert Cassels and his wife G.G. The first Myrtle Beach flight was Nov. 10, 2010, and there have been five more since, the most recent on Aug. 28. The Myrtle Beach Honor Flight has flown 517 veterans to their WWII memorial in Washington, D.C.
One of them is Jay DeFord, an Army veteran who lied about his age and enlisted at 15. A suspicious recruiting sergeant even made him get a signed release from his mother. He landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day plus-1 and went all the way through the Battle of the Bulge and on to Czechoslovakia.
“The losses there were so horrendous, and people think that after D-Day there were no losses. We fought for every inch of ground,” he said. “People don’t really understand. You had just had to be there.”
Despite the horrors he witnessed, DeFord said he does not regret a day of the 22 years he spent in the Army.
“It was an adventure,” he said.
Theresa Fuller, another Honor Flight alum, can relate to DeFord’s perspective. She enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps at 23, something, as her daughter Mary Hunter said, “women just didn’t do back then. They were just not that independent.”
Her mother refers, in turn, to her experiences as a “Cinderella story” and something that you just don’t want to talk about. She met and married her husband in the Philippines in a dress that the Filipino people sewed for her out of a parachute (since silk was rationed), and she worked with General Douglas MacArthur at prisoner of war camps in the Pacific islands.
“My tour of duty was an honor and a privilege, and I am so proud of myself,” she said.
As every veteran should be, like Ted Ackley who served in the Navy Atlantic Fleet.
“I got in just at the tail end of the war. At that time, all we knew was that Hitler was defeated, and we anticipated that it was going to take years and be a fight to the end,” he said.
He enlisted for the long haul, but as he said, “dropping the bomb changed my life.”
Just as it changed the world. But it could not bring back “those three or four very important years of your life that you sacrificed,” said Honor Flight alum Hugh Robinson, who served in the Army Corps.
That is something that, like their fallen brethren in arms, can never be brought back, a sorrow that the Honor Flight and the memorials to their sacrifices have helped ease.
Theirs are stories not easily told. Can words ever truly express the horrors? Soldiers pressing forward, climbing over the bodies of comrades cut down by machine gun fire; torturing a man, someone’s husband or father, for knowledge that might turn the tide of war; leaving your young son to nurse other mothers’ children; or watching comrades who survived a torpedoed ship succumb to dehydration, starvation, salt water poising or a shark attack?
Theirs are stories which have to be lived to be truly understood, and that is the gift that Honor Flight gives survivors. A safe place to tell those tales, seemingly unbelievable to the uninitiated, among those that can understand.
A few have been accompanied on flights by family members, who, like many, have long wondered why their loved ones are loathe to speak of the Bronze Star tucked away in a drawer, among socks and handkerchiefs; of a pressed uniform in a closet, never worn, but never allowed to be used for dress up; or of a photo of their loved one in uniform, so young you hardly recognize them, grinning at the camera, arm in arm with someone you have never heard them speak of, despite the fact that it sits on their bedside table.
What better gifts can Honor Flight offer?
“I don’t think any WWII vet expected to see a monument ... [but] we were glad to see it,” Ackley said. “It is such a fitting tribute for the war, not just the guys fighting, but the families. They were tough times for everyone.”