COLUMBIA — Virgil Watson clearly remembers meeting Gen. George Patton in Germany at the end of World War II.
Watson said he walked eight miles to a field where Patton drove up in an old car with a couple of Red Cross nurses to address the troops assembled before they returned to the U.S.
Patton told the troops that they were some of the finest men out there, and when they got home not to let anyone tell them anything different, he said.
“You know, I can remember things that happened 70 years ago, but I can’t remember what I did yesterday,” Watson said.
Watson, 89, of Cuba, Mo., was drafted into the Army 197th Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion and was one of the troops that landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
At 2 a.m. Tuesday, dressed in a lightweight, black hoodie and blue baseball cap from the VFW in Cuba, Watson joined 66 other World War II and Korean War veterans. They chatted like old friends while eating plates of scrambled eggs, sausage, and biscuits and gravy.
They were all waiting for the signal that it was time to board the buses that would take them to the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and begin their 22-hour Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.
Watson said he was looking forward to seeing the World War II monument, but he wasn’t always convinced about going on the trip. He initially heard about the Honor Flight from his wife’s cousin.
“I’m not too much into seeing all this big stuff,” Watson said. “It was never all that important to me.”
But his family encouraged him to make the trip. He said his nephew, Doug Holen, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, applied to go with him as a guardian.
“Part of his concern was he wanted to be with someone he was familiar with if he had questions,” Holen said. “But this is about him. It’s for him, and we wanted him to go.”
When they made their scheduled return to Columbia just after midnight Wednesday, Watson became one of 960 veterans to take a Central Missouri Honor Flight since 2009. This trip was the organization’s 17th since 2009.
In spite of their success, Honor Flight organizers face a growing challenge to get the word out to all aging World War II veterans that the flights are available and free to them.
It also takes a concerted effort to convince some that they should go.
Mary Paulsell, president of the Central Missouri Honor Flight, believes that part of the reason for this reluctance is that members of “the greatest generation” are some of the most humble people on the planet.
“They will say, ‘We just did what we had to do. We didn’t do anything extraordinary – it’s just what was expected of us,’" she said. “For some, it’s a catharsis.”
Paulsell shared the story of a Marine who served in the South Pacific during the invasion of Peleliu, Okinawa and Iwo Jima who was reluctant to go on an Honor Flight.
“He called me six weeks after the flight and told me, ‘You know, I didn’t want to go on this flight. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it. My wife told me I should go, so I did.’”
He hadn’t been able to sleep through the night in 65 years because of frequent nightmares from the war, she said.
After going on the Honor Flight, he called her to let her know that he’d been sleeping through the night for six weeks straight.
“I told my brother, ‘If that’s the only thing we’ve accomplished in three years of doing this, is give one man peace, it’s worth it all,’” Paulsell said.
Getting the word out
Honor Flight organizers rely on local newspaper announcements about veterans who have gone on previous flights, speaking engagements at veterans organizations and word of mouth to tell veterans about the flight.
But they know they’re just scratching the surface.
“We’ve been told that we’ve only gotten to that top layer – the ones who go to the VFW, go to the Legion, are out and about,” Paulsell said. “There’s a whole other layer that don’t go in that circle. They don’t do veteran things.”
The Honor Flight Network’s website states that 1,000 World War II veterans are dying every day. Paulsell said she believes the estimate of “20 a day in Missouri alone” is an understatement.
She sees the obituaries that frequently appear in the newspaper and realizes the word may not have reached many of them in time.
“The thing that just absolutely devastates us is when we learn that a veteran has died and didn’t get to go, who wanted to go,” she said.
When the Honor Flight first started, the response was so great that many veterans had to go on a waiting list, she said. A few never made the flight to D.C.
“We lost them before we could get them there," she said.
But not every story ends that way.
She recalls one about a veteran who was scheduled to go on a flight in the fall of 2009 who was diagnosed with terminal cancer the weekend before the flight. When he called and said he didn’t want to go any more, she mobilized his daughter and grandchildren to persuade him.
“We put his grandson on the flight as a guardian – he was a firefighter and paramedic,” she said. “They went on the flight on Tuesday, and we got the call on Saturday morning that he’d passed away the night before. The cancer got him a lot quicker than anyone thought.”
Now, more than ever, those who work with the Honor Flight know the urgency of their mission. Every veteran who looks like they might’ve served during World War II is a target.
“If we see a guy in the grocery store, and he's wearing a World War II hat, I’m like ‘Sir, have you gone on the Honor Flight? And he’s like, ‘I’m just buying some carrots.’ I tell him, ‘No, you need to go on the Honor Flight.’”
If she knows they’re interested in going, she makes every effort to get them there — and back.
At just after midnight Wednesday, the two busloads of veterans returned to the Courtyard Marriott escorted by six Missouri State Highway Patrol cars, two uniformed motorcycle officers and 248 Honor Flight Riders on motorcycles.
As bagpipes played the official songs for each branch of the military, the veterans passed through a crowd of friends and family who were waving mini American flags and cheering to welcome them home.
Many veterans had tears in their eyes as they took it all in — just like Virgil Watson.
"There's nobody who's had a homecoming like that," he said. "I don't know what to say. I didn't think there's that many people that cared."
When reminded that all of the things that he experienced on the trip were to honor him and express just how grateful people are for his service during World War II, he shook his head.
"We just didn't know how grateful they are."