WWII vets from S.C. ready for takeoff to visit memorial

Columbia group raising funds to fly servicemen to Washington, D.C.

08/31/2008 12:01 AM

09/02/2008 11:31 AM

A group raising money to fly veterans of the Second World War to visit the National World War II Memorial in the nation’s capital has reached its first milestone — $50,000.

That’s enough for Honor Flight of South Carolina to book the first of six planned charters to Washington, D.C., on US Airways. The group’s fundraising goal is $300,000.

Headed by Columbia restaurateur Bill Dukes, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and Medal of Honor recipient Charles Murray, Honor Flight plans to take 100 veterans and 43 attendants on its first flight, set for Nov. 15.

“We want every veteran to have a chance to see the memorial before they pass,” said Dukes, owner of the Blue Marlin restaurant and a founder of the Longhorn Steak franchise. “We’ll keep chartering airplanes until every veteran in the area has had that experience.”

The emotion of visiting the memorial with his father, William Dukes, inspired the younger Dukes to start the Honor Flight chapter in the Midlands.

William Dukes, 92, was wounded by a grenade in the battle of Peleliu while fighting with the U.S. Army’s 81st “Wildcat” Infantry Division in the Pacific.

At the memorial, the old soldier was drawn to other veterans who, like him, stood in reverence in front of monuments marking the battles they had fought in.

“We were strangers, but we started sharing,” William Dukes said. “And although we hadn’t been in the same battle, their experience was just like mine.”

Each day, about 1,400 World War II veterans nationally pass away, most without ever visiting the memorial erected in their honor. There are about 3 million World War II veterans alive today, but it is expected that virtually all will be gone in the next 10 years.

Bill Dukes said veterans with terminal illnesses will be given top priority for the flights.

The planes will be equipped with wheelchairs, a physician and staff. Attendants, called “guardians,” will pay $500 each for the privilege of escorting the veterans.

Among the guardians to sign up so far are Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, state Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, and retired Maj. Gen. Steven Seigfried.

Veterans and their families can register for the flights at the local organization’s Web site. Ailing veterans and those who have never seen the memorial will get preference, Dukes said.

Honor Flight is a national organization started in 2004 by Earl Morse, a physician’s assistant and retired U.S. Air Force captain, to honor veterans who had been under his care.

Morse of Springfield, Ohio, started by flying one veteran to the memorial himself in a small plane. The reaction of that veteran was such that he began asking other pilots to donate flights for other veterans.

Today, the Honor Flight Network has 73 hubs in 30 states, including chapters in Greenville and Myrtle Beach. By the end of 2008, organizers hope to have hubs in all 50 states and to have transported a total of 12,000 veterans to D.C.

Dukes said most of the donations for the flights here have been small. But they did include a $3,000 anonymous donation and a $7,500 donation from Columbia Conference Center in Irmo.

“But we need some corporate donors,” Dukes said. “We hope that one will step up and sponsor a whole flight or a half a flight.”

Lt. Gov. Bauer said fundraising should become easier after the first flight.

“The response so far has been overwhelming,” Bauer said. “But when people see the emotions these first veterans will go through visiting the memorial, they will get even more excited.”

Dukes recruited the help of his friend Bauer, who was instrumental in landing the U.S. Medal of Honor convention for Charleston in 2010. Also, Bauer’s grandfather, Rudolph Charles Bauer, was executive officer on the USS Midway. He retired a rear admiral and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Bauer said he is coordinating with the other Honor Flight chapters in the state to locate veterans who might not have been able to get on flights in those areas.

“We all have the same goal,” he said. “To honor people who gave so much for our country.”

Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.

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