On the evening of Sept. 26, a large group of World War II veterans were watching the sun go down from the tiny windows of a commercial airliner taking them back to Columbia after experiencing one of the most memorable trips of their lives.
Someone on the flight commented on how it may have been the most beautiful sunset he had ever seen. That gentleman was one of the 85 World War II veterans from around the state who participated in the Honor Flight of South Carolina held last month.
Seven of those World War II veterans were from Aiken County, including Jim Allen, Edward Aromi, Albert Dalimonte, Michael Piemonte, James Bradham, James Hall and Jim Griffith.
“This was absolutely fantastic – every part of it,” said Piemonte, a Navy veteran who is originally from New York. “Those who organized this really need to be thanked profusely.”
Honor Flights occur all over the country, and South Carolina got involved in the program in 2008. The initiative of this program is to give these individuals who served this country an opportunity to see the World War II Memorial, as well as to show them that they are vastly appreciated.
The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina sponsored the September flight. Aiken Electric Co-op CEO Gary Stooksbury went on the trip as a guardian, which is a family member, friend or volunteer who accompanies a veteran on their trip and assists them if needed. This was Stooksbury’s first Honor Flight and, by the end, he couldn’t stop smiling.
“It’s been a great day to see the memorial, especially with the people who are responsible for it,” Stooksbury said. “It was awesome and well worth the trip.”
The sun hadn’t yet broken through the clouds when Columbia Metropolitan Airport began buzzing with excitement about 6 a.m. that morning, as the veterans and their guardians waited to board the plane to D.C.
“We’re really excited,” said Griffith with a grin, a veteran of the Navy and resident of Williston.
Veterans walked between two rows formed by American flags held by Patriot Guard members creating a waving red, white and blue walkway through the airport terminal.
During the flight, the veterans shared black and white photographs of themselves during their time in service, as well as a few stories about their experiences during the war. That was one thing that many of the men were excited about – meeting other veterans.
Once the plane landed at Reagan National Airport, a fire department had two trucks out on both sides of the aircraft, which shot water over it.
Then, the veterans made their grand entry into the airport, where people gathered with small American flags to cheer and thank them for their service. Patriotic music was played by a live band, and many veterans looked quite overwhelmed by the enthusiastic crowd.
“It was sort of touching,” said Bradham, Army Air Corps veteran from New Ellenton who was the youngest of his three brothers, all who served during the war. “I sometimes get a little emotional at events like that.”
Bradham’s guardian, Dana Moseley of Aiken, was also touched. This trip was important to him because his father, Henry, was a World War II veteran but passed away before he could do the Honor Flight. Moseley decided to volunteer and participated in honor of his dad.
“Everything has just been great,” Moseley said. “This is just magnificent. It’s a real tribute.”
The first stop on the big trip was the World War II Memorial, which opened in 2004. Many of the veterans hadn’t had a chance to see it before that moment.
Hall, an Army veteran from Williston, was a bit speechless by the monument.
“Words can’t describe it. You just can’t put it into words,” Hall said. “It’s a little bit more emotional than I thought it would be.”
Some of the veterans said that it brought back memories of a war that they feel this generation is starting to forget or have already forgotten.
Veterans and their guardians took some time to take in the memorial. Many of them solemnly approached the Freedom Wall and silently stayed there for a moment. Van O’Cain, director of Public and Member Relations of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina Inc. said that part of the memorial touches these men the most. It’s lined with 4,000 golden stars that reflect in a pool underneath. Those stars represent more than 400,000 who died in World War II.
During the rest of the day, the veterans and guardians were given a tour of D.C., visiting the Korean, Vietnam, Lincoln and Iwo Jima memorials.
Before heading back to South Carolina, they stopped at the Arlington National Cemetery and watched the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Once they were back at Reagan Airport, the veterans were greeted by more hand shakes and music before boarding the plane to take them home.
Then, these heroes got a proper homecoming.
The Honor Flight participants were greeted at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport by Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell and were welcomed by hundreds of flag-waving residents. A band exploded into more patriotic music as family, friends and even strangers shook hands or hugged the veterans.
Aiken resident Jim Allen, an Army veteran who was part of the 104 Infantry Divisionberwolves had the pleasure of having his two sons, Richard and Donald, go on the trip with him. Richard was his guardian, and Donald was the guardian to another veteran. Allen said he hadn’t seen such a joyful crowd since 1945 when he was in Paris celebrating the end of World War II.
“It was awesome for a young 19 year old – it was awesome, I tell ya,” Allen said, reflecting back to that day.
This homecoming was pretty awesome, as well, Allen said.
“It was a sight,” Allen said. “It was so fun to see the joy. It was something. It was really a credit to the people there and to the veterans.”
The next Honor Flight will be Nov. 7. For more information, visit www.honorflightsc.com or call 582-8826.