SUN CITY CENTER – Earlier this month 80 World War II veterans got to take the trip of a lifetime when they were flown to the nation's capital to honor their service 68 years ago.
Five among 15 veterans from Sun City Center were from Freedom Plaza – Bill Shanks, 89; George Johnson, 91; Alec Strong, 91; Bob Shape, 92; and Clarence Padgham, 96.
The free flight, courtesy of Honor Flight of West Central Florida, gave them the chance to see their World War II Memorial, which opened in April 2004.
The Oct. 8 visit made lasting impressions. At every stop, which included the Iwo Jima, Korean and Air Force memorials and Vietnam Veterans Wall, the entourage was greeted by volunteers wearing red, white and blue. Each veteran was accompanied by a volunteer guardian, who ensured his safety throughout the trip.
“Of all the things we saw, the Wall of Stars at the World War II Memorial touched me the most,” said Johnson, a former Air Force B-29 flight engineer. “Each of its 4,048 stars represents 100 servicemen lost. That really hit me.”
Shanks, a Marine fighter pilot who fought at Okinawa and the Philippines and served more than 33 years in the Corps, shared his sentiments.
He described the memorial's design and impact as “incredible, calling it a “real compliment” to the 16 million who either fought or served during World War II. He said he especially liked its placement between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial and the bas-relief murals depicting the “story of the war, the people and their contributions.
“I was exceedingly impressed by how well the trip was organized,” Shanks said. “They paid attention to every detail and made (the trip) so memorable.”
But the biggest surprise came when they arrived home.
An estimated crowd of 1,000 area residents met them at Tampa International to give the returning warriors a rousing reception.
“To see their faces when they saw everyone was very emotional,” said Tanya Doran of the Greater Riverview Chamber of Commerce, who had traveled on a bus with 24 others to take part. “It was inspiring, moving – an honor to be there. It's actually quite difficult to put into words.”
The veterans were floored.
“It was a complete surprise,” Shanks said. “People were lined up on both sides clapping, shaking our hands and thanking us for our service. There were children, families, JROTC, active military, choruses bands, Knights of Columbus and USO girls.
“It was amazing. I was taken aback.”
Honor Flight of West Central Florida was established in October 2010 as one of a 142 regional hubs of the National Honor Flight Network.
With support from corporate sponsors and individual donors, the all-volunteer, regional group began providing WWII vets in the 10-county, Tampa Bay area all-expense-paid trips to Washington, D.C. Since 2011, a total of 14 missions have taken more than 1,041 veterans from West Central Florida to the capital.
“Our ultimate goal is to get every veteran to Washington,” said volunteer Bruce Ford, who coordinates the trips for Sun City Center Honor Flight participants. “Our focus right now is World War II veterans. After that, it will be Korean War veterans, then Vietnam and right on up the line.”
Ford said the process starts with veterans applying for the flights. Preference is given to WWII vets, especially anyone 95 and older. No one is turned down.
“Any veteran who has been declared terminally ill, regardless of when they served, goes immediately to the top of the list,” he said.
Normally, who goes when is decided on a first-come-first-served basis, with exceptions based on health and medical considerations, said Jim Haake, president of Honor Flight of West Central Florida.
“We have the largest concentration of World War II veterans in the world,” he said, estimating there are between 26,000 and 27,000 of them living in the region. Nationwide there are roughly 1.1 million, and about 700 die every day, he said.
Sadly, Bob Shape became one of those casualties on Oct. 15. The day after returning home from his honor flight, the former Navy fighter pilot who fought in Guadalcanal, fell, broke his hip and never recovered.
“He was so elated, just thrilled with the flight,” said his wife, Bea, recalling his reaction to the trip. “It was one of the best things that happened in his life. He especially enjoyed the airport reception. I'm so glad he got to go.”
Each honor flight costs $54,700 and includes 80 veterans, 80 guardians who pay their own way, 80 wheelchairs and four support staff. The funding comes mostly from individual donations, said Haake, who served 22 years in the Army and retired as a lieutenant colonel.
Being involved in Honor Flight is a privilege, he said.
“It's a fulfilling opportunity to pay back every World War II veteran who defeated tyranny and gave us the freedom we enjoy today. (Those who survived) just came home, put on their civilian clothes, went back to work and built the greatest nation the world has ever known.”
If you'd like to help support future honor flights, send a check in any amount to Honor Flight of West Central Florida, P.O. Box 55661, St. Petersburg Florida. Additional information and applications are available at www.honorflightwcf.org.