Packet Sea Foam: Traveling veterans get star treatment

June 13, 2011 

Thanks to Jack Mooney of TidePointe for sharing an unforgettable piece of Americana.

Oh what a beautiful morning

Oh what a beautiful day

I've got a wonderful feeling

Everything's going my way.

The "wonderful day" actually began in the evening when my wife, Jen, stepson David Coyle and I arrived at the Georgia Air National Guard station by the Savannah-Hilton Head Island International Airport. We arrived at the scheduled 7 p.m., in good time for our 8 p.m. bus departure to Washington, D.C.

The "we" of whom I speak were upwards of 50 World War II veterans, all of us 80 years old or older, on our way to Washington and vicinity to see the National World War II Monument and other mostly military installations.

We were guests of Honor Flight Savannah, an organization dedicated to honoring World War II veterans by taking them from the Savannah area and southeast South Carolina for a one-day visit to Washington. The veterans on board were the guests of Honor Flight Savannah, and we could not have been more graciously or warmly treated.

We were greeted on arrival by Larry Spears, the founder and treasurer of the organization, and his wife, Marian, who was the lead "guardian" and bus captain for the whole trip. She kept everything on schedule and in excellent order. All of us veterans had a guardian who wore a red T-shirt. The veterans wore gray T-shirts, decorated front and back.

At all stops along the way, we were greeted by throngs of welcomers, military officers (as high ranking as a lieutenant general), enlisted men and women, and ROTC lads, including some who had arrived as early as 6:30 a.m. for our departure.

At the World War II Monument, one of our distinguished greeters was former U.S. senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole. All had come to honor us comparatively few World War II veterans. It was at the same time thrilling and almost humbling. Several times along the way it was mentioned that we are dying off at the rate of 1,000 a day.

Each guardian was in charge of one to three veterans, depending on their physical well-being. My guardian was Paul "Pops" Spence who served for 20 years in the Army in Europe, Vietnam, Guam, and Okinawa, from 1953 to 1973. He lives in Hinesville, Ga.

On this trip he was also guardian of Bob and Robert, both from Georgia. Since Bob, Robert and I were physically able for the most part, Pops mostly kept his eye on us and took many pictures along the way, assuring us we would be receiving photos reflecting our adventure. He was a very pleasant fellow to be with, as were my other two companions, on our two nights together, going to Washington and returning. Pops is indeed a man of his word as six pages of some 24 color photos arrived a week later.

Two activities of the day were particularly memorable to me.

Of course, visiting the World War II Memorial was our first priority, particularly for those of us like me who had not visited it before. There are 50-plus columns, each bearing the name of a state, and at least one territory, Puerto Rico, which I happened to notice. Pops took my photo in front of the Missouri column, and my companions, Bob and Robert, in front of the Georgia column. Another photo showed Bob Dole with me standing close by.

It was a beautiful day in Washington. As we ate a delicious box lunch on our fabulous bus (the word "Fabulous" was emblazoned on its sides), it carried us about the governmental section of the city, where we could admire the handsome office buildings as well as the beautiful lawns and trees in their springtime glory.

Also, we saw such landmarks as the Smithsonian, National Gallery of Art, etc., wishing we had time to visit all of them.

But we soon crossed over the Potomac River to the Virginia side, where we entered the Arlington National Cemetery and disembarked near the Tomb of the Unknowns. Here, again, we were greeted by many greeters -- civilian and military, including a lieutenant general.

We arrived at Arlington in time to observe the 2:30 to 3 p.m. changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. It is indeed a solemn and distinguished performance of first one guard marching back and forth, clicking his heels and rifle at each turn. Then a second guard arrives, and finally a third, an officer guard arrives and officiates at the changing, a trumpeter sounding "Taps" all the while. With that, a new guard takes over and the crowd slowly departs. It was breathtaking in its solemnity.

We then cruised around Arlington and Washington, viewing other memorials and monuments to Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, etc., and some less well-known.

About 6:30 p.m., we cruised on out to Falls Church, Va., where we enjoyed a very nice buffet dinner, choosing as many salads, entrees and desserts as we desired -- certainly enough to ease us to rest for the overnight drive.

We left Falls Church at about 7:30 p.m., heading south, and after several stretch-a-leg stops along the way, we arrived back at the National Guard station at about 6:30 a.m. That was the end of two comfortable nights and a wonderful day, always to be remembered.

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