By Jim Perry, Cushing Citizen managing editor
for the Oklahoma Press Association
Oklahoma City resident Lynn Hall, at 90, has put the “S” in spry.
And the “P-R-Y,” as well.
He walks two miles a day, eschews any offer of a ride in a wheel chair and makes anyone around him giggle when he talks.
“I told them I wasn’t coming on this trip unless I got a pretty guardian,” Hall said Tuesday, when he joined 81 other World War II veterans on 15th Oklahoma Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.
Trudi Terry, who did not know Hall before Monday, giggled in her seat.
“They looked at my military papers and decided I should have a fifth-grade teacher,” Hall said.
Terry said getting to know Hall was like “raising two teenagers.” She should know; she’s in her 29th year as an elementary teacher.
“It’s like match-dot-com,” Terry said, eyes rolling. “I’ve already had so much fun and the plane hasn’t even taken off.”
That was before 7:30 a.m. Roughly six hours later, the two were in a more somber mood.
One hundred seventy-two passengers boarded the Oklahoma Honor Flight on Miami Air, a carrier used strictly for charter flights. Those on board — veterans, their guardians and a handful of others — landed at 11:04 a.m. Central Daylight Time in Baltimore, Md., where they were greeted with a salute of water cannons on the tarmac and glad tidings from Honor Flights Network volunteers in the terminal.
The group piled into three buses — red, white and blue — and were escorted by Freedom Fighters to the World War II Memorial, the focus of Honor Flights.
Volunteer escorts and barricades marking memorials “closed” were only slight inconveniences created by the federal government shutdown for the touring group from Oklahoma. Buses drove around barricades for a “windshield” tour of the Iwo Jima Memorial.
Wheelchairs filled with veterans did the same thing at the World War II Memorial, which opened in 2004.
“It’s a toxic situation in Washington. We’ve got to rise above that,” said state Rep. Gary Banz, a Midwest City resident who spurred the expansion of Honor Flights into Oklahoma.
The fountains were turned off at the World War II Memorial. It hardly mattered to the aging veterans who were seeing it, mostly, for the first time.
“I think it’s a great place and a sad place at the same time,” Ken Hightower of Oklahoma City said. “It’s mixed emotions.”
Hightower was a pilot with Army Air Corps in the European theater. He flew 29 missions in three major campaigns.
“This brings back a lot of memories,” he said. “I don’t remember all the bad things. I try to remember only the good ones.”
Visiting the memorial had sobered even the frivolous Hall.
“I watched the film on the bus ride from the airport and was almost in tears,” he said. “I think it’s beautiful but so many lives were lost to get this.
“People don’t realize one of the things that always bugs me: I won’t own a Japanese car or anything else Japanese if I know about it because I remember the Bataan Death March.
“If we would run and tell people the exact truth about the Bataan Death March — guys were marching, one of them would fall down and the Japanese would just shoot him — they wouldn’t buy Japanese cars either.
“I can’t forget the Bataan Death March.”
One of the touching moments of the visit to the memorial involved the Mason family of Spencer.
James Mason, a U.S. Army vet, speaks little about the war, his daughter and guardian, Paula Mason, said.
When asked at the end of the day about his journey, James Mason struggled with emotion.
His day had included a surprise visit from his grandson, Erwin Mason, a captain en route to Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas, by way of duty in Yemen.
“My dad never talks about the war,” Paula Mason said. “I hope this will help him open up and, maybe, get some closure.”
“I hadn’t thought about my grandson being there,” James Mason said. “They knew about it all the time.”
The group witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown in Arlington National Cemetery, toured the Korean War Memorial and drove past the iconic U.S. Air Force Memorial as it made its return to Baltimore Washington International Airport. The homeward flight — about two and a half hours in duration — was mostly quiet.
“It’s a long day,” Banz said shortly before 9:14 p.m. CST, when the plane touched back down at Will Rogers World Airport. “Most of us are worn slick.”
Rightfully so. The process of loading and unloading 82 veterans — 48 of them in wheel chairs — on buses and planes is a wearying one.
“Our picture is used for the definition of ‘insanity,’” Linda Banz, wife of Gary Banz and planner supreme, said. “We’re taking 75 to 100 men 85 to 95 years old halfway across the country on a day trip.
Oklahoma Honor Flight 15 carried 21 veterans 90 or older. Three women veterans were on board. A record high 70 of the 82 guardians were either relatives or close friends of the veterans they squired.
“We want that,” Linda Banz said. “Teaching the next generation about history is part of why we do this.”
Honor Flights began in May 2005 when six small planes carried a dozen World War II vets from Springfield, Ohio, to Washington, D.C. The network has reached 41 states and now has escorted more than 100,000 veterans — free of charge — on the trip.
“There’s more out there and we want to do this for them, too,” Gary Banz said. “We just have to find them.”