‘Honor Flight’ is moving tribute to WWII veterans

Victoria Siegel

By Victoria Siegel

This summer, I had the honor of assisting with an Honor Flight (www.honorflight.org) out of St. Louis.  This organization flies World War II veterans free-of-charge to Washington D.C. to see their memorial (www.wwiimemorial.com). My dad, Irv Siegel, and his close friend, Jerome “Jerry” Heligman, were two of 27 WWII vets from the St. Louis area on this particular flight. 

Each veteran is assigned a guardian to assist him throughout the trip.  I signed up to be my dad’s guardian but I didn’t tell him so he was totally surprised when he found out at the airport.  Each guardian is responsible for two veterans so I was able to experience the journey with my dad and his long-time friend the entire time.   

It was a very full and non-stop day:  The adventure started with the guardians arriving at the airport at 3:30 a.m. and the veterans following 15 minutes later. A few were in wheelchairs but most of the men on our flight were ambulatory. When you consider that the majority of these veterans are in their 80s, it’s an impressive feat to see so many of them walking unaided.

Everyone received breakfast at the gate before our 6 a.m. flight to Baltimore.  Upon landing in Baltimore, we were treated to a special tribute usually reserved for retiring pilots during their final landing: a water canon salute. As our plane taxied to the gate, two fire trucks on either side turned their hoses on our plane. It was the first of many emotional surprises that day. The second one came when we got off the plane: everyone at the gate was cheering, waving flags and thanking our veterans as they walked off the gangway. The volunteers with Honor Flight in Baltimore, known as the Ground Crew, apparently are given special clearance to meet the Honor Flight planes at the gate and distribute flags to the waiting passengers. It was an amazing welcome; my dad and Heligman had looks of wonder and emotion in their eyes at this greeting.

After de-planing, the Honor Flight Ground Crew shepherded us through the airport to a very comfortable large touring bus. The Ground Crew lined up along the curb and waved us off as we headed to the WWII Memorial.

The first activity on our to-do list at the memorial was a group photograph of all of the veterans. It was quite a sight to behold these brave and humble men lined up with the Washington Monument to their backs while they saluted. In fact, visitors to the monument couldn’t help but take their own pictures. Everywhere we went while walking around this vast and beautiful monument the men were treated like the heroes they truly were. People stopped them to take their pictures and thanked them for their service. The veterans seemed truly moved by such appreciation.

After the WWII Memorial, we were back on the bus for a driving tour of D.C. while we ate lunch.  The next stop was the Korean and Vietnam War Memorials and Lincoln Memorial.  Then, we went to Arlington Cemetery where we observed the changing of the guard.  Our final stop, before driving back to the airport and having dinner at the gate, was the Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as Iwo Jima Memorial. 

While it was a very busy and tiring day, the vets enjoyed every minute of it.  There were many more wonderful surprises along the way but they should remain surprises for those who participate on the next flight. 

With all the surprises and treats throughout the day, including strangers coming up to my dad to shake his hand and say “thank you,” he turned to me several times and said “No one has ever thanked us like this before,” which broke my heart.  There were many moments where vets and guardians alike were choked up. 

I now am even more grateful for the heroism and patriotism of that generation and still can’t understand why it took so long to create the WWII Memorial.  These veterans are so humble about what they did and never ask to be recognized or brag about their achievements, which were many. In fact, my dad balked at being labeled a hero. He said, “All we did was answer the call of our country.”

I strongly encourage everyone to volunteer to be a guardian for a flight-you will get so much out of it. I also urge you to sign up any WWII veteran you know who has not yet been to see the memorial: 636- 230-2466 or www.gslhonorflight.org.

Victoria Siegel is a longtime contributor to the St. Louis Jewish Light. She lives in Creve Coeur.