Main Honor Flight Story 9/12/2012

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Stars for fallen veterans
Honor Flight to Washington allows time of tribute

By Ted Streuli
The Journal Record, for the Oklahoma Press Association

At age 22, Melvin Purdy had a truck driving job in Europe. The only problem was that it was 1942, the back of the truck was full of ammunition for the 10th Tank Battalion, and Purdy was supposed to get it up to the front line. And the battalion was surrounded by German troops.
“We lost men; we lost tanks; we lost trucks,” said Purdy. “We left a lot of men in there.”
The 92-year-old Purdy, who lives in Enid, said he was reminded of those men while looking at the Freedom Wall at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Freedom Wall holds 4,048 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans who died while serving in the second world war.
Purdy was only impressed by the stars.
“All that structure is just cement blocks,” he said of the $197 million memorial. “But the stars, the stars mean something.”
Purdy was one of 104 Oklahoma veterans who participated in an Honor Flight Sept. 12 to visit the memorial and several other national monuments. It was the ninth such flight from Oklahoma, the third this year. The Oklahoma organization raises about $100,000 per flight to send veterans with volunteer helpers known as guardians. Some of the money comes from the guardians, who pay their own way on the trips, about $500, and the rest comes from corporate, foundation and individual gifts.
The itinerary starts with an hourlong send-off event and a very early flight. For this trip, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett turned up just after 5 a.m. to greet each veteran boarding the charter flight. Three chartered buses get a U.S. Park Police escort from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and the first stop is an hourlong visit to the National World War II Memorial.
Most of the veterans on the September trips served during that war. The program prioritizes applications, giving preference to the oldest and those who are terminally ill. The Honor Flights organization estimated that of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, 3 million survive, about 60,000 of them in Oklahoma.
The tour moves on to the Lincoln and Korean War memorials, then to Arlington National Cemetery to watch the changing-of-the-guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Buses gave the veterans a quick, close-up view of the National Marine Memorial and stopped to tour the 6-year-old Air Force Memorial before returning to Baltimore for an evening flight home.
“I’m having the time of my life,” said Milford Clayton, an 87-year-old veteran from Oklahoma City.
Clayton, who had just toured the Korean War Memorial, served in the Army as a company clerk and postal clerk during World War II.
William Culpepper of Harrah served briefly in the Navy during the second world war, then jumped ship to the Air Force, serving in Korea and Vietnam. His wife, Rebecca Culpepper, was also in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
“I think it’s been a great experience for me, and for her also,” William Culpepper said during the stop at the Air Force Memorial, where the pair asked a guardian to snap a few extra photos. “Her dad was in World War II. It makes you realize – we’re dying off.”
Jay Roberson, a World War II Navy veteran from Bartlesville, said he was particularly moved by the changing-of-the-guard ceremony.
“The cemetery; that was really something,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was that big. It was a great trip.”
Shawnee’s James Post, who also served in the Navy during the second world war, was equally complimentary.
“It’s hard to please 104 people,” he said. “I think they did a pretty good job.”
Oklahoma Honor Flights is affiliated with the national Honor Flights organization, which has affiliates in 37 states. But the most striking aspect of the flight isn’t the famous sites or the send-off party. It’s the flow of strangers who stop to thank the service men and women who shut down the Axis.
Purdy stopped his wheelchair at the World War II Memorial when a stranger approached. The middle-aged man, a tourist, spoke with a heavy Irish accent while shaking Purdy’s hand.
“Thank you for what you’ve done,” the stranger said. “Thank you for what you’ve done for the whole world.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: At the request of the Oklahoma Press Association, Ted Streuli accompanied veterans to the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 12, 2012. Streuli's transportation was paid by the OPA in return for an article and photos of the historic event. Streuli is managing editor at The Journal Record in Oklahoma City.