WASHINGTON, D.C. — A group of 90 American heroes from Upstate South Carolina and Western North Carolina had just arrived in Washington, D.C., at Reagan International Airport to a large crowd of well-wishers and Walter “W. L.” Bruce was in tears.
The World War II Veteran from Greer said quietly that, “they looked at me like I was somebody.” Mr. Bruce, you and the veterans were “somebody” and we as a nation are grateful.
The occasion was the 300th Honor Flight and on board were military veterans of World War II and their guardians. They came from different backgrounds and even different countries. There are brothers and brothers-in-laws, men and women.
James Robertson of Townville was born in England, came to America as a child and became a U.S. citizen at Ellis Island. After working 20 years in New York City as a firefighter, he retired and moved south. Retirement did not last long and soon he was a mail carrier in Anderson.
Brothers Boyd and Tommy Wingo of Spartanburg were part of a family that was typical of the day. They joined their brother Julian to serve. Julian was a B-25 navigator in India, Tommy was in France and Germany, and Boyd was in the Philippines and Korea.
“We have waited 67 years for this,” Tommy said.
Ed Taylor and Parker Chapman of Greenville were best friends as teenagers, and decided to join the military together. Their military I.D. tags are one number apart. They served from 1944-1946, and after their service, Ed married Parker’s sister. They are still best friends and were able to share this special day together.
The day started at the Greenville Spartanburg Airport at 7 a.m. and after breakfast and registration, the group signed a banner and boarded an eight-day-old A321 and headed to our nation’s capitol.
As the US Airway’s jet taxied to the runway a water salute was given by the airport fire department. Upon arrival at Reagan International, you knew the day was going to be special when the group received another water salute and greetings from the ground crews. Entering the terminal hundreds of well-wishers held up signs and applauded as the group began their journey to remember.
Vivian Bradburn of Union was all smiles as she waved at the well-wishers and listened to the patriotic music being performed. Mrs. Bradburn served in the Women’s Air Corp and taught pilots how to use radar.
She had been scheduled to end her military career in Okinawa at the war’s end, but was reassigned — fate was on her side. She said one of her most memorable moments was serving as a recruiter on an Indian reservation in New Mexico.
Hartford “Parks” Boozer of Greer played football at Greer High School as the quarterback and was offered a scholarship to play football at Clemson. He said he had to do the right thing, so he turned down the scholarship and at 18 he began serving our country.
A few months later the young man was in Germany with a company of mostly 30- to 35-year-olds. He said “they took care of me like I was a child.”
The 87-year-old says he still dreams about a town in Germany where there were bodies stacked on the side of the road. He said on occasion he would have to pull bodies out of the Rhine River.
“The first couple were tough, then you were immune to the situation,” he said.
When the 21-year-old returned to Greer, he went to get his driver’s license and he was told that his father would have to come and sign for him before he could take the test. When his dad appeared, they recognized him and promptly gave him his license. His father would become the Greer Chief of Police, a position he held for 30 years.
Also on the trip was former Laurens Mayor James Goss; J.N. McFadden, a minister of music at Fairview Baptist Church in Greer; and Willie Whitaker of Greenville.
Whitaker taught physics at Sterling High School and Furman University with one of his students at Sterling being Jesse Jackson. The 88-year-old has also been active in the Civil Air Patrol. Others on board also contributed much to their communities.
A moment of honor
After the group had visited the World War II Memorial, they made their way to the Korean and Vietnam Memorials. They then proceeded to the Iwo Jima Memorial to pose for another group photo. After the photo was made the veterans were given time to view the monument and pose for individual photos.
Everett Tillotson of Spartanburg stood up from his wheelchair and stared at the flag being atop the memorial. He said that he had served there. It was as if he was reliving a moment. He asked if he could go and just touch the memorial, and it was decided to let the veteran have his moment.
Several around assisted him to the monument, he placed his right hand on the monument, said a silent prayer and then in the quietness, he then stood erect and saluted the memorial. Everyone around had tears come to their eyes. Uncommon valor was still a common virtue.
The flight home
When the group returned to the terminal it was as if a festival was going on. Swing dancers were performing, a band was playing, and US Airways employees were greeting their guests in grand style.
As we were about to board the plane, I was informed that our pilot was the granddaughter of one of our veterans. Kristi Munn would take us home to meet a throng of well-wishers gathered at the Greenville Spartanburg Airport.
As we were making our final approach, she announced to the guests that she was proud to have been a part of Honor Flight 300, and thanked each veteran for their service. She went on to say that she was especially proud of one passenger, Richard McAbee of Woodruff, her grandfather.
She said “I love you, Grandpa” and the plane erupted into applause. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day.
Steve Blackwell is the publisher of The Greer Citizen and was on the 300th Honor Flight.