Honoring America's Veterans With One Last Mission

11/21/2018  |  By Kelly Countryman 104th Training Division
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April 22, 2018 Puget Sound Honor Flight Veterans group picture at the World War II Memorial. Photo courtesy of Puget Sound Honor Flight.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 640 WWII veterans die each day. Time to express our thanks to these brave men and women is running out.

Since its founding in 2005, The Honor Flight Network has given over 180,000 of our nation’s Veterans who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., for “one last mission” to visit and reflect at the memorials built in their honor. 

One of the most memorable stops on the tour is the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. As the Guards solemnly exit their post, the silence is only broken by the sound of the Guard scuffing his heel on the pavement as he passes by Veterans in the audience to show his respect. It is rumored that the Guards were ordered not to do this, but they refused to comply.

Top priority is given to the senior veterans – World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill.

Each Veteran has an escort, or “Guardian” throughout the trip. Each guardian pays their own way for the trip. To travel from Seattle, Washington for example, this comes to about $1000 per person including airfare, lodging and food. Many of the Veterans are accompanied by a Family member, but the rest are accompanied by volunteers who are more than happy to pay for their own travel expenses. Many of these volunteers have made multiple trips with the Honor Flight Network.

In April this year, Veterans representing all the Armed Services who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War gathered at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle, Washington to participate in the Puget Sound Honor Flight to Washington D.C.

Some of the attendees included a survivor of Pearl Harbor, one of the last living survivors from the U.S.S. Indianapolis, and  two Veterans near and dear to our hearts, World War II 104th Infantry Division Timberwolves, Mr. Leo Thoennes and Mr. Joe DeVaux.

Both Leo and Joe took part in the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of the German slave labor camp, Dora-Mittelbau. Even though these two Timberwolves hadn’t met during the war, (they served in different units) they became acquainted with one another by chance a few years ago, having met at the establishment where Mr. DeVaux and his wife reside.

Leo and Joe were accompanied on the flight by their sons, both named John. When the Honor Flight arrived at the Baltimore Washington International Airport, Leo’s daughter Mary, her husband Dave, and their daughter Natalie were there to greet him and accompany him on most of the tour.

Changing of the Guard at Arlington.

Every moment of the Honor Flight has something special for these honored veterans. From the celebratory send off to an enthusiastic welcome home attended by hundreds of volunteers.

On the first day of the tour, the BWI Brownies Motorcycle Club, provide a special escort from the hotel to the World War II Memorial, the first stop on the trip.

During the hour long bus ride from the hotel in Baltimore, MD, videos are played with information on some of the memorials to be visited. In between videos, travelers are entertained with WWII era radio entertainment. Meals, snacks, and cold drinks are provided throughout the trip.

The three day tour includes visits to the memorials for World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Air Force, Navy Memorial and Museum, Women’s Memorial, Iwo Jima Memorial, the Arlington National Cemetery, and more.

Mr. Leo Thoennes and Mr. Joe DeVaux arrived at the BWI Airport. Photo courtesy of Mr. John Thoennes.

Leo said he especially liked the Korean War Memorial because “the statues here remind me so much of the Timberwolves. I was Anti-Aircraft Artillery so I was usually a mile behind the front lines, but almost every day, I’d see the Timberwolves walking past me toward the front, looking just like these statues. A few days later I’d see them trudging back, tired, dirty, their clothes torn, and they’d look so exhausted that it made my heart ache for them. But this is exactly what it was like to see them headed to the front lines.”

One of the most memorable stops on the tour is the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. As the Guards solemnly exit their post, the silence is only broken by the sound of the Guard scuffing his heel on the pavement as he passes by Veterans in the audience to show his respect. It is rumored that the Guards were ordered not to do this, but they refused to comply.

Joe was drafted in the United States Army in 1942, but given six months deferment to complete High School. Eventually, Joe was assigned to the 104th Infantry Division in G Company, with the 413th Battalion.  He was especially impressed with the Changing of the Guard at Arlington Cemetery. 
“It really meant something special as I thought of those in our rifle company who paid the ultimate sacrifice for all of us”, he said.

On the first day of the tour, the BWI Brownies Motorcycle Club, provide a special escort from the hotel to the World War II Memorial, the first stop on the trip.

 

A big part of the Honor Flight is a surprise to the Veterans. On the return flight, they have a “Mail Call” where each Veteran is given letters from Family, friends and grateful citizens. It isn’t unusual to see tears and hear sniffles. Flight attendants even pass out tissues for those overcome with emotion. During this particular mail call, many were brought to tears to hear a Veteran crying and laughing as he joyfully shouted “I got a letter from my grandson! It’s from my grandson!”

The tour ends when Veterans return to their home where hundreds of volunteers wait eagerly to welcome them home.

Both Timberwolves said they truly enjoyed the Honor Flight tour and both agreed that the Korean War Memorial was the one they were most impressed with. Speaking of the flight Joe said “I just can’t say enough about how much we all enjoyed the trip.  Congratulations to the people who are responsible for the Honor Flight Program.  It is a fantastic program for the Veterans and what they did, and still do, to protect our Country.  Most of us would not have had the opportunity to visit these Memorials without this program.”

The Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization. They transport America’s heroes, free to the veteran, and made possible solely through individual donations and corporate support – NO Federal funds are allocated to this program. There are 131 Honor Flight hubs around the country and there are currently 27,272 Veterans on the waiting list throughout the nation. If you would like to volunteer, contribute or just learn more about the Honor Flight Network, visit www.honorflight.org.

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