Gulf Coast group honors state’s surviving World War II veterans

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to reflect new fundraising figures different from those referenced in the May 24, 2013 print edition.

It will be wheels up for the last time this October when the Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight (MGCHF) holds its final flight to honor the state’s surviving World War II veterans.

The organization announced last week that Honor Flight VI will depart from Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport on Oct. 1.

The chartered flight is free to World II veterans from Mississippi and gives them a chance to visit the nation’s capital for a day and meet the state’s congressional delegation at the National World War II Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and other landmarks.

“October 1, 2013, will be our final flight,” organizer Wayne Lennep says. Lennep says World War II veterans are all in their 80s and 90s and roughly 1,000 die each day. “That explains the urgency of it,” he says. “These men and women are in the final chapter of their lives.”

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U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker visits with Mississippi World War II veterans on their trip to the nation’s capital.

Since its first flight in May 2011, MGCHF has made five trips and taken 431 veterans. With the final flight they could increase that number to 500.

Fundraising is also underway toward the roughly $90,000 needed for the event, which includes a chartered plane, rental of tour buses and tour guides in Washington, meals and supplies, shirts, hats and other souvenir items and pre-flight orientation for each veteran.

The group also hopes to raise enough funding to provide the veterans and their spouses from all six flights with a final “Grand Reunion Gala” in November.

So far the group has raised more than $35,000 for this year’s trip. Applications are now being accepted and veterans from anywhere in Mississippi are urged to apply. Veterans on past flights have come from as far away as Madison, Oxford and Tupelo.

Lennep says the idea for the flight came to him after meeting some of the organizers of the Mobile (Ala.) Honor Flight. The first organizational meeting was held on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 2010.

“Part of the reason its so appealing to me is maybe because I wasn’t a veteran,” Lennep says. “This is my way of saying thank you.”

An electrical designer for Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula and a nephew of a Korean War veteran, Lennep’s interest in World War II began after seeing the Steven Spielberg film “Saving Private Ryan” and reading journalist Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation.” The interest peaked again in 2004 after the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington.

“It means more to me now when I think about what this generation did for our country and the liberty and freedom we share all because of them,” he says. “They are heroes and we treat them like it.”

For Janet Sullivan, being a guardian on last year’s flight was well worth the $500 fee. The senior staffer for the Southern District of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, says her father served in the Army in World War II and was 93 when he died.

“If only I had known about this in time then I could have hopefully got him on the flight,” she says. “All vets are near and dear to my heart.”

Sullivan says she read about the flights in a newspaper article and quickly signed up to go along and help. Despite the wheelchairs and oxygen tanks, many of the veterans that participate are still in great shape.

The flight matched Sullivan up with 95-year-old Navy veteran Marion Ritchie from the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport. Ritchie began her World War II service with the 12th Naval District Shore Patrol in San Francisco then transferred to Washington to work in the Naval Office.

At the end of a long day, Sullivan says she was exhausted but Ritchie never wound known. “You can learn a whole lot from veterans,” she says. “They are very humble. They don’t want a lot of praise and don’t expect a lot of praise.”

Lennep remembers finding two veterans on the same flight that saw action on the beaches of Normandy when the Allies finally launched their D-Day invasion of Europe. He made sure they had plenty of time to sit and swap stories together.

“We had one from my hometown that joined the service when he was 14 but told them he was 16,” Lennep says. “He was in the thick of the battle surviving bomb blasts and being shot at while getting on the beach. He went over as a boy and became a man real quick.”

Another Gulf Coast veteran Emmett Simmons who served in the Navy in the Pacific theater helped start a moving tradition for the flight that continues to this day.

Lennep says Simmons had wanted the group to gather together at the World War II memorial and sing “God Bless America” but in the haste of the day, the idea was overlooked.

On the plane ride home, they made sure that Simmons got to lead the flight in the patriotic song.

“It was the last thing we did as we made our descent. We’ve done it on every flight since then,” Lennep says.

Back at the airport, hundreds of local residents and their families were waiting to welcome the veterans home as they were paraded through the terminal, a moment especially moving to Sullivan.

“These are the people of the Greatest Generation that went and fought for this country. They went over there and gave us a free country and came back and worked,” she says. “They didn’t ask for a thing. They haven’t even asked for this.”

Whether its for a Hattiesburg Marine who stormed the volcanic summit of Mount Suribachi or a Louisville B-17 pilot who flew 32 bombing missions over Europe, the Honor Flight is a final way for Mississippi to honor old soldiers before they fade away.

 

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