News: Thousands gather to welcome vets home from ‘Honor Flight’
Story by Cpl. Tyler J. Bolken
NEW BERN, N.C. -- World War II veterans came home to heroic, street-lined welcomes in 1945, having left many of their fallen brothers behind on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific.
Never forgetting, 108 Eastern North Carolina WWII veterans were flown to our nation’s capital, May 4, to commemorate the memorial that honors them and their fallen comrades. The trip was sponsored by the non-profit organization Honor Flight Southeastern North Carolina.
“These guys don’t live forever, and they’re fading away quickly,” explained retired Maj. Gen. Tom Braaten, director of the Coastal Carolina Regional Airport in New Bern and main organizer of the flight and former commander of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point. “We’re trying to give as many of them as we can a chance to go up and see the memorial, which they earned.”
The veterans, mostly in their 80s, took an early morning chartered flight out of New Bern, many of which donned attire from their respective branches of service during the day trip.
“Most of us were strangers to each other before today,” explained veteran Paul Banks, who resides in New Bern. “But we’ve always shared the same background.”
The men made their first stop in Washington, D.C., at the World War II memorial. They saw the pillar, arch and foundation formed a plaza that serves as a reminder of what they fought for more than 65 years ago.
“It was very moving and emotional,” said veteran Larry Ford, resident of New Bern.
The men also saw many of the other war memorials in the Washington, D.C., area during their trip, which Braaten said was funded by donations and organized by volunteers.
After the day of homage, the veterans embarked on their flight back to New Bern. They were welcomed with a homecoming reception by thousands of flag-waving supporters from the local community who wanted nothing more than to remind the 108 men that their service has not been and never will be forgotten.
“I’m so overwhelmed right now,” said veteran Terrence Walker. “I’m at a loss for words.”
Though the veterans may have been in a temporary shock of awe and speechlessness, the crowd had plenty of good things to say about the World War II heroes.
“This is a real patriotic part of the country,” said Braaten. “The community understands why we enjoy the freedoms we have today, and the WWII veterans are a huge part of that.”
Meshed with the thousands of supporters were several Marines from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point to help partake in the rock-star-like reception. The Marines helped escort the veterans from the airplane through the mass of the “USA, USA” chanting flag-waving patriots spilling out the front door of the airport.
“These guys led the way and made things so much better for us,” explained Sgt. Shayne T. Bunn, an eye level avionics instructor at the Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training Marine Unit Cherry Point. “Even though tonight is something as simple as helping them down the steps, it’s amazing to see our history before us.”
Braaten believed it was a special connection, saying “These Marines were able to get up close and personal with the veterans, consider what they’ve gone through and chat with them. They’re living history.”
Cpl. Randall L. Hartsell, a military policeman with the Cherry Point Provost Marshal Office, said the moment was tough to fathom, thinking about what most of the men saw and probably went through.
“You think of movies like, ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ said Hartsell. “A lot of these guys were there and experienced that first hand.”
The consensus from roaring crowd showed that the 108 veterans are continuing to uphold their reputation as the nation’s greatest generation and are still adored as much today as they were when they came home many years ago.
“These guys are our history,” Bunn stated. “They’re what we read about and are what inspired some of us to join the military. It was an honor to be in their presence.”