It’s almost five in the morning. It’s cold and still dark in Kalamazoo. It takes about 45 minutes to load 21 veterans, 15 wheelchairs and 22 helpers onto a charter bus.
A cheery, caffeinated voice comes over the bus’ loudspeaker, “Good morning everybody how are we doing?” Bobbi Bradley is president of “Talons Out” the new honor flight hub based in Kalamazoo. This is the group’s first mission. It had to raise $34,000 to pull it off.
The donations cover the cost of the day trip for all the veterans on board who are well into their 80s. Bradley says the trip isn’t something many of these vets can physically do on their own.
On average, more than 600 World War II veterans die every day.
“So for them, it’s really, we’ve got to get them there as quick as we can and people see that, they know that, and people understand that,” Bradley said.
Since the first “Honor Flight” in 2005, groups in 43 states have followed suit.
After the charter flight to Washington D.C. and a second airport greeting, the group follows a police escort to the memorial for the Second World War.
87 year old Kenneth Wells takes his time walking by rows of service men and women a quarter his age, all standing at attention. He remembers joining the Marines in 1944 with one of his best friends.
“He went to Iwo Jima – got a bullet in the head, just like that. I wouldn’t have been here if I’d have gone with him,” Wells tells Congressman Bill Huizenga, who came to greet the veterans.
Instead, in 1945 Wells was sent to fight on the front lines at Okinawa.
“You know we went in there with about 250 in our company and came out with 29,” Wells said, “Replacements would come in that morning and you’d never get to know them, and that night you’d say ‘Hey, what ever happened to those two guys that came in this morning?’ and they were gone already.”
After two months Wells was critically injured by a mortar blast. He stands out in his bright purple jacket emblazoned with a purple heart. Throughout the day people approach him, thank him for his service, and shout out a quick “Semper Fi!”
93 year old Catherine VandeBunte sits nearby, smiling in her wheelchair. She’s kind of a rarity as a female Navy veteran of WW II. Like Wells, this is her first time visiting the memorial.
“There was a time in my life that was military, and of course you've forgotten that for umpteen years. Now we’re just having a chance to live some of those memories in a beautiful, beautiful way. The care, the anticipation of our needs, it’s just been wonderful,” VandeBunte said.
VandeBunte says her decision to join the Navy wasn’t a difficult one. She hated her job as a secretary, and being a woman in 1943, she wasn’t optimistic about having a career.
“Our boyfriends and our school chums were all being drafted. And we went down and saw a marvelous woman recruiter. We just couldn’t resist. So I just quit my job and went,” VandeBunte said.
VandeBunte tested well in math so she was sent to a big Navy base in San Francisco. Part of her duties there were to keep track of allotments the Navy men were to send home to their wives and parents.
“They didn’t want to do certain things that he Navy said they had to do. So I say that I learned psychology 101 – how to handle angry men,” VandeBunte says with a laugh.
After three years of service, VandeBunte got to go to college and made a career at the UpJohn Company.
At the memorial for the battle of Iwo Jima, a man asks several veterans for their autograph, and where they served.
88 year old Dick Norr can’t resist telling one of his favorite war stories. It’s May 8th, 1945 and Norr is standing guard at an outpost in Germany.
“Sergeant guard came by and said, ‘Hey the war is over.’ The war is over! I had such a feeling of euphoria. I couldn’t hold it. I wanted to tell somebody so bad,” Norr said.
Soon, Norr says an old German man came walking down the road.
“I wanted to tell him something. So I says ‘Krieg finish!’ And we hugged and danced, both us right there!” Norr said with a wide smile, “Oh I was so happy.”
The man with the index cards asking for autographs is Neil Haglund. The Indiana native started collecting signatures and stories after his father passed away a few years ago.
“After my father died, who was a World War II veteran, I realized I didn’t have his autograph. So I thought, ‘I want to talk to these guys,” Haglund said, “They have some wonderful stories. Some don’t want to talk at all and some, like that guy, were relatively easy to talk to and they can share.”
“It’s been a wonderful hobby. I wish I would’ve started this a long time ago,” Haglund said.
After a long day in D.C., the veterans fly back to Michigan the same night.
They’re astonished to see hundreds of people, most of them strangers, welcoming them back home in Kalamazoo. The wheelchairs are paraded through the cheering crowd.
Dick Norr, the veteran from Battle Creek who fought at that outpost in Germany, tries to explain how he’s feeling about all this.
“Words fail me, to try and describe what happened today. You can’t put it in words. You gotta be there to see it and feel it,” Norr said, “Do you agree?”
Norr turns to me, an expectant look on his face. At this point he can’t push back tears. Neither could I.
“I feel so humbled. I feel overwhelmed. I’ve never had such a day in my life,” Norr said.
Roughly 100,000 WW II veterans have made this same journey. It’s cost several million dollars. Many say it’s a day they’ll never forget.