The U.S. National World War II Memorial opened on the Mall in Washington in 2004 — too late for most of the war's veterans.
At the time of the memorial's dedication, it was estimated that only a quarter of the 16 million Americans who served in the war were still alive. Today, 68 years after the war's end, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that more than 600 World War II veterans die each day.
Which is why three Southwest Airlines chartered flights, bearing 200 veterans from New England and New York, arrived at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport early Saturday. Such "honor flights," established a year after the memorial opened, transport hundreds of old soldiers and sailors to the nation's capital from 160 cities in 41 states.
Saturday's honor flight was one of the largest undertaken in a single day, with 193 veterans in baseball and overseas caps — some in wheelchairs, some with walkers — making the trip.
"Nothing in my experience compared to today," said Francis Buchanan, an 87-year-old Army veteran from Fall River, Mass., who had never flown before yesterday's flight from Boston to Baltimore. His daughter, Margaret Flynn, accompanied him on the flight and pushed Buchanan's wheelchair.
The veterans and their guardians — either volunteers or family members — caught flights from Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island and took buses to the memorial, where they were greeted by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Amos.
Also greeting the veterans was former Sen. Bob Dole, a World War II veteran who had been instrumental in raising funds for the memorial.
"Elizabeth Dole was there, too," said 94-year-old Ballou "Took" Tooker, a Coast Guard veteran from Wethersfield, Conn. "And you know what? She's still a good-lookin' woman."
"I can't get over how nice everyone has been, the way they treat you," said Buchanan, a machine-gunner with the 30th Infantry Division who was in Austria at war's end. Buchanan also served in North Africa and Italy.
Buchanan said he gripped his daughter's hand as the flight took off from Boston. "I had butterflies," he said. "But once we got in the air, I was OK."
The founder of the Honor Flight Network, Earl Morse, addressed the veterans and their guardians at the end of the day, during an early supper at a hotel near the airport before their flights home.
A retired Air Force captain and a former physician assistant with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Ohio, Morse saw the need for the honor flights while working with patients at the small clinic where he worked.
He kept asking if they intended to get to Washington to see the memorial, and what he heard bothered him. Veterans felt they were getting too old to make the trip, or they couldn't afford to travel. And they certainly didn't want to travel alone.
In 2004 and 2005, Morse, a pilot, flew a couple of grateful veterans to see the memorial. Since then, there have been hundreds of flights, funded with donations to the Honor Flight Network. Yesterday's airlift of veterans was sponsored by the charitable foundation of Ocean State Job Lots, a closeout retailer with 110 stores in New England and New York.
"World War II veterans are special — appreciative and humble," Morse said. "I'll tell them, 'Thanks for saving the world,' and they'll say, 'Ah, I didn't do nothin'.' They all say that. I tell them, 'I don't know how your generation won the war. I never met a World War II veteran who did anything.'"
Morse has seen a lot of old-soldier smiles over the past eight years. "They come up and thank me," he said of the veterans. "But I say, 'Thank you for the honor of allowing us to finally get you to your memorial.'"Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun