COLUMBIA — It was 3 a.m. on May 5, and the light of dawn remained hours away. But the dozens of World War II veterans who gathered outside the Holiday Inn Executive Center were wide awake. Surrounded by family, friends and other well-wishers, the veterans were about to take a day trip they were unlikely to forget. They were going to see the World War II National Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The money to send these veterans came in from local fundraising efforts. The trip was part of a larger movement started by the Honor Flight Network, a national program that aims to send as many veterans to the memorial as possible.*
But there isn’t much time. The average World War II veteran is 85. WWII veterans are dying at the rate of 1,000 per day. By next year, only 1.8 million of the 15.7 million people who returned from the war will still be alive, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. By 2023, that number will dwindle to 96,000.
The May 5 trip was the first** Honor Flight provided by the Central Missouri hub. The Show-Me Honor Flight hub, out of Sedalia, has sent 70 veterans to the memorial.
On this day, 35 were signed up for the Central Missouri Honor Flight. The itinerary looked exhausting: a bus ride to St. Louis, a flight to Baltimore, a bus ride to the capital, then the return trip. But the veterans — even those in failing health — were game for the adventure, buoyed by a send-off salute from MU ROTC cadets and surprise celebrations at nearly every stopping point along the way.
Shortly after 7 a.m., the plane left St. Louis for Baltimore. The flight was loud as the energized veterans swapped stories and roamed the aisles, posing for pictures with one another. Pat Shay told the group about the time he and several buddies found a washing machine in Guam and charged fellow Marines 50 cents to wash their clothes.
Bill Emerson, a former Navy carrier aviator, shared stories of his practice landings on paddle-powered boats in Lake Michigan while training near Chicago.
“This feels like a flight to Vegas,” a flight attendant said.
About three hours later, as their plane taxied down the runway at the Baltimore airport, the veterans were told to look out the window as Baltimore firefighters gave them a unique salute, shooting water from a cannon into a high arch. Army veteran Willard Brandenburg watched quietly with his son, Robert, a smile pulling at the corners of his lips.
Then the veterans exited the plane to a heroes’ welcome by the Honor Flight ground crew, Southwest Airlines employees and random passengers. Travelers waved American flags. Red, white and blue balloons and patriotic banners hung everywhere. Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” filled the air. The veterans, though surprised, greeted the crowd like pros, shaking hands, waving and giving hugs. The cheering and applause became deafening as veterans in wheelchairs arrived.
“A reception like that, it made you feel good,” Emerson said. “That’s the easiest way to describe it.”
For brothers Ralph and Harold McElvain, the greeting was their favorite part of the day.
“I thought it was terrific. … brought tears to my eyes,” Ralph McElvain said.
From Baltimore, the veterans rode buses to see the World War II National Memorial, where they were greeted by Army soldiers, U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer and television journalist Sam Donaldson, whose uncle, Virgil Moore, was among the veterans on the flight.
After a series of group photos, the veterans scattered to view the memorial. Most were speechless as they struggled to take it all in. The memorial is intimidating in its size and scope. Fifty-six granite columns representing states and territories are arranged in a giant oval that surrounds a large fountain area called the Rainbow Pool. Two pavilions standing 43 feet tall represent the victories in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. A wall of stars called the Freedom Wall spans the space between the pillars.
“I can’t believe this. This is a beautiful, beautiful memorial,” Navy veteran Bill Dalzell said. He became somber when he reached the Freedom Wall, which features 4,048 gold stars, each representing 100 people who were killed during the war. Many veterans said they had no idea that so many people had died.
Army veteran Earl Malizia paid close attention to the Iowa and Missouri pillars. Drafted into the Army out of an Iowa high school at age 18, the Rocheport resident said he feels ties to both states.
Malizia went through four months of hard infantry training in Texas, then boarded a ship with 1,500 soldiers bound first for Pearl Harbor and then to the Philippines.
“When we got over there, the heat was unbearable,” he said. Most soldiers suffered from both heat rash and jungle rot.
After the war, Malizia worked with the military police, keeping order and taking charge of Japanese prisoners of war. After 14 months, he finally returned to the U.S., taking a ship to San Francisco. The ship stopped right under the Golden Gate Bridge.
“We were all so happy to be home, we never went to sleep, just kept looking at the lights of San Francisco,” he said.
Now, 63 years later, Malizia always enjoys being reunited with fellow veterans. Ten years ago, he hosted a reunion for his unit.
“It was nonstop talking for three days,” he said. The Honor Flight was much the same, even though he had never met most of the veterans before.
“They’re really sociable, and we’re all happy to be together,” he said, adding that the trip was bittersweet. He remembered comrades who didn’t make it home.
“We lost two members of our unit over there. It was really sad to come home and know those people would never come back,” he said, choking back tears.
As Malizia told his story, Moore, an Air Force veteran, posed for pictures while looking around with family members from Washington who joined him at the memorial.
“I think the memorial is wonderful,” he said. “I had no idea what it was like. … You don’t know what to think. I’m from Columbia, Missouri. I’m proud of it.”
Moore was a gunner in the Air Force and flew his first mission on Jan. 1, 1944. Less than three months later, on March 22, 1944, he was shot down near Berlin. Moore, 74, has a knack for remembering important dates in his life. He spent 19 days in a coma before waking up as a prisoner of war.
“I didn’t have much going on for me,” he said. “Finally I come out of it and spent the rest of the time in a prison camp. I look back on those days — it should have been a lot worse. … You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
After a year as a prisoner, Moore was released when the war ended, on May 8, 1945. He returned to the States on June 28, got married on July 7, 1945, and worked for both the post office and MU. Now he lives at Truman Veterans Hospital. He said he enjoyed talking with fellow veterans about his war experiences.
“Every time servicemen get together, (there’s) always a bunch of stories,” he said.
As the hourlong visit to the memorial wound down, many of the veterans said they were overwhelmed by the experience. But the day was far from over. A Tourmobile trip through Arlington National Cemetery — the final resting place for more than 300,000 veterans, former presidents, Supreme Court justices and congressmen — was next on the agenda. The veterans fell silent as the tour bus traveled slowly through the cemetery’s rolling green hills and seemingly endless span of unmarked white tombstones.
At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, most of the veterans got out to take the brief walk around the Memorial Amphitheater. Groups of school children moved aside to allow them to pass just as the changing of the guard ceremony was about to begin. The veterans were solemn and reflective. Many wiped away tears; others held them back.
“This is the hardest part for me,” Army veteran and former paratrooper Bob Kennish said.
After the ceremony, the veterans got to talk with an off-duty sentinel from the 3rd U.S. Infantry. He is one of only 400 soldiers who have earned the privilege of guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier over the past 45 years.
As the sentinel described the ceremony, Shay offered a moment of levity. The ritual, he said, had dragged on for far too long. The sentinel reminded him that the ceremony had remained unchanged through all the years the tomb has been guarded. Shay was unimpressed.
“That’s too long. You could modernize it; speed it up,” he said, shaking his head and earning chuckles from other veterans.
Everywhere the veterans went, they were met with warm greetings. They received applause when they boarded the plane, flight attendants announced their presence repeatedly and people came up to thank them for their service as they traveled through Washington.
One traveler on the flight home was so affected by the experience that he wrote a check for $300, enough to pay for one veteran’s Honor Flight.
On the trip home, some of the veterans were noticeably tired, but most insisted they were feeling good.
Malizia had been up since before 12:30 a.m., but he seemed unfazed. “I couldn’t go back to sleep so I just got up,” he said of his excitement before the trip.
Another surprise awaited the veterans as they flew back from Baltimore to St. Louis. Before the trip, Honor Flight organizers had asked the veterans' family members to write letters thanking them for their service. Columbia Independent School students wrote letters, too. The veterans received the letters during an in-flight “mail call.”
As the veterans opened their letters, their confusion turned into raw emotion, ranging from smiles and laughter to tears. The veterans were surprised to see that the letter writers knew intimate details of their time in the war.
“This must be from my wife,” Dalzell joked. “They know all the secrets!”
The McElvain brothers opened their letters together. “They’re telling me what a great person I am. That’s unusual,” Ralph McElvain joked. “(They say I’m) lots of fun, kind, sweet and a huge flirt.”
As Harold McElvain read his letters, his eyes filled with tears and turned red. He apologized for becoming emotional. “I thought this was wonderful. It’s a lot more than I expected. I really enjoyed it.”
The brothers listened together as two letters were read over the intercom. One was from a student named Tatum. “You’re not only a hero to me but to our entire country. I hope your trip to the memorial is enjoyable. You deserve every bit of it.”
Malizia also enjoyed the surprise letters.
“Oh boy, I tell you, it makes you feel good that people think of you like that,” he said.
By the time the plane landed in St. Louis, it was dark once again. The veterans shuffled through the terminal, ready to board the bus that would take them back to Columbia. They had been awake and active for nearly 24 hours now, and most were ready to call it day, taking a seat whenever possible. The chatter had stopped; it was a markedly quieter group than it was earlier in the day.
As the veterans neared the airport exit, they spied a small group of airmen, wearing khaki camouflage and polished boots and carrying large backpacks. They were on their way to Iraq. Three stopped to shake the veterans’ hands, and there was an unspoken understanding between them about the poignant moment.
Worried for the safety of their younger counterparts, the veterans told the airmen to look out for themselves. They also thanked them for serving their country. The younger men brushed off the concern and the thanks.
“You guys led the way,” one of the airman said.
Back at the Holiday Inn Executive Center, where their adventure began, the veterans exited the bus to find soldiers, friends and family welcoming them home. With the Honor Flight behind him, Malizia summed up his day.
“I think the program is really something,” he said. “For all the volunteers, all the hard work they do to organize everything, get everybody on schedule, it’s really, truly amazing how they do it.
“I want to thank them personally … (it’s) so nice of them to do it for us veterans.”