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World War II Veterans receive their wings

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May 23, 2007

Washington D.C. - Meet Georgia's "Greatest Generation,"  some of the state's 320,000 service men and women who went off to save the world from dictatorship and genocide in World War II.

Eighty-one-year-old Clarence Smith remembers storming the beaches in the Pacific like it was yesterday.  "They dropped us off in a place where the water was knee deep and told us this is your home, make the best of it and we did!"

Bill Hoopes literally raised our flag and our hopes.  "My company, Easy Company 28th Marines, 2nd Battalion raised the flags on Iwo Jima.  Raised THE flag!"

And Lavan Robinson.  He helped liberate a Nazi Concentration Camp.  "They pulled my unit out and I was assigned to Dachau and had to help clean it up and during that time we did just that and getting the people well enough."

These Georgia veterans, humble heroes, rarely speak of their valor.  Usually others speak for them.  "We all came home and went to work.  We didn't worry about memorials, we had to worry about going to school or getting a job, family and farming," says former Senator Bob Dole.

And they never asked for honors.  "They have seen with their own eyes the high price of freedom.  So they came home, they wanted to forget about the war and get on with their lives.  Now, 60 years later, they still don't ask for anything," says Earl Morse.

Honor Flight Founder Earl Morse thought their sacrifices demanded a World War II Memorial in Washington D.C.  So did former Senator and World War II Veteran Bob Dole.  "Some people say don't spend all that money on bricks and mortar.  And I said we'll go our and raise it and if we can't raise it we won't build it.  And we raised 190 million dollars," Dole says.

The World War II memorial finally opened in May of 2004 but many of the war's aging heroes never dreamed they'd make it to the memorial built in their honor.  "This is a dream I never expected to happen!" exclaims Robinson.

Until these two Valdosta veterans called on Honor Flight, the program dedicated to get as many veterans to the memorial in Washington D.C. as possible.  "We flew six planes the first month, then we got up to ten planes a month flying 20 veterans a month but we were getting 95 applications a month," Morse says.

A program with an air of urgency.  "World War II veterans are passing away at approximately 1,200 a day.  Time is running out for us and this program," he adds.

So they asked the Valdosta residents to make donations.  "We thought if we started this in South Georgia, that South Georgians would come through and support it and they have in spades," say Bert Powell, one of the co-founders of Honor Flight South Georgia.  "It's been absolutely wonderful."

$113,000 was raised, enough to send a plane full of veterans to their memorial. Last weekend, 115 veterans gathered at the Valdosta airport to take their dream flight.  Some arrived for this special 9:00 A.M. mission, before dawn, too excited to sleep.

Clarence Smith even broke out his old Navy uniform and dog tags for the occasion.  "Got my name, serial number, blood type and date of issue."

It was an elaborate send-off.  Bagpipers, the ROTC program from Lowndes and Valdosta High and the Knights of Columbus all gathered to honor Georgia's Greatest Generation for their flight to Washington.

An even better reception awaited them at their destination.  A hero's welcome, as crowds gathered to thank them for their service, girl scouts handed out candy and even former Senator Bob Dole came to show his support. 

And the veterans basked in the praise they haven't heard for decades.  "It was an emotional thing with me.  It reminded me of the time I got on the ship to go over there, to Europe and the time we came back and met the United States in New York, in the Harbor there.  I was so glad to get home I stooped down and kissed the dirty streets," Robinson says.

It all allowed the memories to flood back in.  "I was brushing my teeth Sunday morning when the Japanese were dropping bombs and sinking our ships in Pearl Harbor," one veteran remembers.

They paused to remember the high price of freedom.  The nearly 8 thousand Georgian's who died in the war and the great majority of veterans for whom the memorial was built to late.  "You look at those gold stars and realize 400,000 men and women lost their lives.  It's a pretty sobering experience," Dole says.

They fought in many countries.  They raised our flag at Iwo Jima but they say visiting the World War II Memorial may just be one of their greatest adventures yet.

Transported back over 60 years both to their greatest sacrifice and glory.  "It's a wonderful feeling, joy!  And seeing all the other old boys, the veterans.  It's just really remarkable.  It's incredible to be here and see all the things!" Smith exclaims.

The South Georgia vets also visited Arlington National Cemetery to observe the Changing of the Honor Guard before a plane ride home that same night, where the veterans could reflect on the day and give thanks to those who made their trip possible.  "The main emotion is an emotion of gratitude to the people who arranged this and all the trouble they went to and the money people gave to it.  What a treat it was for all of us involved," Hoopes says.

Just 12 hours after they first took off, they're back home with a renewed spirit and a standing ovation from the community.  Applauding the veterans who answered the call to save the world.  They handed us the American dream and asked for nothing in return.  Now finally given their wings and the thanks they deserve.

Honor Flight South Georgia is planning a second trip at the end of the summer for veterans who couldn't make this trip.  Since its inception in 2005, nearly two thousand World War II veterans have gotten the opportunity to see their memorial.

They hope to reach five thousand by the end of the year.

Anyone interested in joining the Honor Flight, giving a donation, or becoming an Honor Flight Guardian can call Honor Flight South Georgia at 229-219-7281 or 229-219-7213.

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