The Honor Flight Network honors America’s older veterans by flying them to view the national war memorials in Washington, D.C., but it’s the veterans who honor us — consecrating these monuments to service and sacrifice with their footsteps.
World War II veterans are leaving us at a rate of 1,000 per day and the nonprofit organization aims to take as many of them as possible to see the memorials that have been raised on their behalf. On an Honor Flight out of Cleveland last month, 70 American heroes got to make that journey — including Westfield Township’s George Kilkenny.
Their first stop on the one-day tour: the National World War II Memorial. Park rangers, as well as some members of Congress, were on hand to welcome the three Honor Flight tours arriving that day from different parts of the country.
“It was impressive,” said Kilkenny, 86.
Kilkenny served in the Pacific, seeing battle in the Philippines, Okinawa and Guam. He was a quartermaster on an LST, assisting in the ship’s navigation.
“Sixty-five years ago, we didn’t have a GPS (global positioning system),” Kilkenny recalled with a laugh. “We had the same tools Columbus did — we had to look at the stars!”
He enrolled in Miami University following his discharge in 1946 — earning a degree in business and economics — and went right into the Korean War in 1950. He served four more years on active duty, eventually retiring from the reserves in 1975.
Kilkenny’s grandson John, stationed in Chicago with the Coast Guard, encouraged him to apply for Honor Flight. John was able to join Kilkenny’s trip as one of the 30 or more volunteer guardians who assist the veterans, about half of whom were in wheelchairs, Kilkenny said. He was grateful to be among those who could tour the monuments on his own two feet.
The group boarded a plane in Cleveland at 8 a.m. and flew to Maryland, where a bus took them to Washington. They got on the plane for home around 8 p.m. It’s a whirlwind trip, but even the travel had its special moments, Kilkenny said.
As the veterans, identified by their Honor Flight T-shirts, came through the airports, people waiting for flights spontaneously broke into applause.
“It was just enough to choke you up,” Kilkenny said.
Honor Flight is free to veterans, but it does take money to make it possible. The program receives no government funding. It’s supported entirely by the donations of individuals, corporations and organizations. There are 8,000 World War II veterans on the waiting list, which is first-come, first-served. At present, the program gives priority to World War II veterans because of their age, and to veterans who are terminally ill.
After the National World War II Memorial and lunch, Kilkenny and his fellow veterans visited the Korean and Vietnam war memorials, as well as Arlington National Cemetery, where they were able to witness the changing of the guard.
For Kilkenny, visiting the Iwo Jima Memorial was extra special because his son, Brien, a Coast Guard veteran himself who was working in Washington that week, was able to join him there, along with John. Three generations of Kilkenny boys posed together for a photo in front of the monument.
“That was the highlight of the tour for me,” Kilkenny said.
He encourages veterans who are interested, and able to travel, to sign up.
“The restaurants, the memorials, the airport … everyone walked up to say thank you,” Kilkenny said. “That was very meaningful.”
For information on Honor Flight or to make a donation, visit www.honorflight.org.
Contact John Gladden at firstname.lastname@example.org.