COLUMBIA — On July 26, 1944, John “Ace” Drummond, a P-47 fighter pilot from Ninety Six, was shot down by German anti-aircraft fire and spent the remainder of World War II in a German prisoner of war camp.
On Sept. 26, Drummond, who spent 40 years in the South Carolina Senate and 16 years as its president pro tem, was one of 85 World War II vets returning to Columbia from a daylong trip to Washington, D.C., to see their memorial, courtesy of the Honor Flight program.
The 93-year-old was met at the gate by one of his proteges, Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell of Charleston. Neither man knew their old friend was going to be there.
“Lord-a-mercy,” said Drummond, clearly overwhelmed by the day and touched by the surprise greeting. “I’m shocked to death. These are great friends. That’s why I’m crying.”
The surprise welcome was set up by Mike Couick, chief executive of the association that represents the S.C. Electric Cooperatives in the state – the flight’s corporate sponsor – and John Wienges, the reading clerk of the Senate.
Couick is a former chief of staff for the Senate Judiciary Committee and knows both McConnell and Drummond well. Sen. Nikki Setzler of Lexington County kept McConnell in tow and the conspiracy under wraps.
“I had no idea,” said McConnell, a Republican whom the Democrat Drummond backed as his successor as president pro tem when Republicans took the Senate in 2001. “I got his picture in my office. He’s my hero. He did so much for me.”
Honor Fight is a national program with local chapters that fly World War II veterans to the nation’s capital for free to see their memorial.
The programs in South Carolina – there are chapters in Columbia, the Upstate, Lowcountry and Pee Dee – have flown about 3,000 vets since they began a few years ago.
The veterans are given a rousing send-off at their local airport, and are given a hero’s welcome in Washington, often met by such dignitaries as former Sen. Bob Dole and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.
They visit their memorial, as well as the Washington Monument and Korea memorial, the Iwo Jima and Air Force memorials, and Arlington National Cemetery, where they are special guests for the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
“Guardians” are on hand to assist the veterans, each paying $500 for the privilege, which helps offset some of the flights’ cost. Also, the flights have two physicians on board, in case of health problems.
The Sept. 26 flight was the second flight that the electric cooperatives have funded – the first was in May. Each flight costs $60,000 and takes about 85 vets to the memorial.
With World War II veterans passing away in large numbers, Couick said it’s important to find them now and thank them for their service. So beginning in the spring the co-ops’ 2,300 employees canvassed their mostly rural areas for veterans who may not have heard of the program.
“We thought we would get about 100,” Couick said.
Some of the vets were assigned to a subsequent flight. But Couick said the co-ops decided to go ahead and book a second flight. And all of the vets’ stories have been compiled either in a book that accompanies the first flight, or video tapes of the vets on Wednesday’s flight.
“We had to capture those stories,” he said.
On the flight with Drummond was Bill Clinton, an African-American veteran from Lancaster. He was in the Army quartermaster corps in the Philippines.
Clinton, 87, remembers fighting, eating and sleeping alongside white troops during the war. But upon returning to America having to use separate bathrooms and water fountains.
He said the flight was a joy, and he felt a great unity being with other World War II vets.
“These are just the most excellent, wonderful people I’ve ever met,” he said. “I liked everything about it. I liked the food. I think I gained a few pounds.”
Drummond also was delighted with the flight, but was struck almost speechless by the reception he received at the end.
“If I don’t live another day this will be the most wonderful day of my life,” he said.