They became known as the Greatest Generation.
They were the men and women who went off to war without much complaint before, during or after. Some of them served through the entire span of World War II. And when they came home, they got down to the business of ushering America into an era of prosperity. They were a generation of quiet, ordinary heroes and many of them never got the recognition they deserved for a job well done.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2004 that a memorial in Washington, D.C. was dedicated to them. By that time many of them were approaching their 80s and no longer had the stamina, energy or means to see it in person. Now most of them are into their 90s and their numbers are dwindling by about 640 a day.
That’s where Honor Flight Network comes into the picture. Founded in 2005, Honor Flight is an organization whose mission is “to transport America’s veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit those memorials dedicated to honor the service and sacrifices of themselves and their friends.” It has transported nearly 160,000 veterans to the capital to visit the memorials and receive recognition for their service. Each veteran is accompanied by a guardian, a trained volunteer who pays his own way to make the trip.
On Sept. 25 an Honor Flight Long Island plane left Long Island MacArthur Airport with about 50 veterans and 50 guardians aboard.
Mike Davis, 44, of Aquebogue was a guardian on that flight.
Davis has been associated with Honor Flight for about 5 or 6 years. He first learned about it as a volunteer firefighter in Springs when he joined the East End’s chapter of the New York Red Knights motorcycle club. Among the other riders in the club was Navy vet Richard Steiber, who filled Davis in on what it was like to return from war. Steiber, like many who served in Vietnam, didn’t have an easy time of it when he finished his tour of duty and returned home. He introduced Davis to the Boots on the Ground movement and military Welcome Home programs.
Davis found a great deal of satisfaction in helping vets and their families. He found himself joining in more and more with the Red Knights as they honored military personnel in various ways. Sometimes he was part of a motorcycle escort for soldiers returning home from the Mideast. He attended every Welcome Home ceremony he could. Like all the Red Knights, Davis feels that “anything we can do for veterans, we do.”
Eventually, he heard about Honor Flight and he was instantly taken with it. He knew he wanted to become a guardian as soon as possible.
“As soon as you’re involved in any way, you’re hooked,” he said passionately.
After everyone is settled on the plane — vets always get the window seats — they’re off on the first leg of their journey. It’s a short flight and vet and guardian spend the time getting to know each other a bit. The first big surprise came as the jet touched down on the runway at BWI, Davis said, his voice already breaking with emotion at the memory. The airport’s fire trucks raced out toward the plane, planted themselves on either side of the runway and open their hoses. Water arced out of the hoses and splashed the plane with an enthusiastic, watery salute. Vosen wasn’t sure what was happening until Davis explained it was Baltimore’s way of welcoming and honoring the arriving vets.
Davis had to pause several times to collect himself as he related the scene at the gate in Baltimore. For him, he said, this moment was the most emotional of the whole day. First, the steward announced over the PA system that it was an honor for Southwest to welcome the vets safely to Baltimore. As the vets began to deplane with their guardians helping them, an announcement at the gate notified people in the terminal about the incoming passengers’ journey. As the vets emerged from the jetway one at a time, the whole concourse exploded into applause. A JROTC unit stood at attention, saluting each of the arriving vets. The whole terminal seemed to come to a stop, Davis said. Complete strangers stopped to shake the vets’ hands and offer thanks and appreciation for their service. The applause continued until the last vet exited the jetway, Davis said.
“Those reactions are the ones that will stay with me forever,” Davis said, his voice hoarse with suppressed emotion.
The vets and their guardians next boarded a bus to a local diner, where they had lunch before traveling to the World War II memorial. There, a guide leads the group around the memorial, explaining the meaning of the bas-relief sculptures on each of the 56 pillars surrounding the central oval. Each pillar has a scene sculpted into it that recalls some phase of life in the service during WW II. Before leaving, the group gathers together for a photo.
Next, the group heads for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This day, they are lucky enough to see the group before them being ushered out: a group of Gold Star Mothers — and they stop when they see the vets coming. Every single Gold Star Mother in the group stopped to thank the vets. “We’re on a strict schedule, and this puts us back 15 minutes,” said Davis, “but it was so worth it. It was so important to the vets, but for the moms, too.”
An officer arrived at the tomb to conduct an inspection of the sentinel going off duty. He wiped the barrel of the guard’s gun with his white glove and flipped his hand over directly in front of the soldier’s face to reveal if there’s any residue on the white fabric. (There’s not.)
Then, Davis said they had a rare moment to talk with a sentinel who was not on duty at that time. The sentinel told the vets he polishes his shoes for two hours every day and polishes every single piece of metal on his uniform every day. He explains that the path the guards walk on the mat in front of the tomb consists of 21 steps and two rest positions of 21 seconds each repeated back and forth in front of the tomb. Davis said every bit of the sentinel’s being exuded respect for the grave and for the vets he spoke with.
The last memorial they visited was the iconic depiction of three marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, but Vosen was too tired to get off the bus. Davis stayed at his side while the others left to see the monument before heading to the Golden Corral for an early dinner. As the veterans dined, the other patrons of the restaurant broke out into God Bless America, followed with America the Beautiful and several more patriotic songs.
After the vets boarded the bus for the trip to the airport, there’s another surprise for them: mail call — just like when they were in the service. Each vet on the bus received a personalized letter. Some of the letters were written by Cub Scouts from Aquebogue.
By the time the Honor Flight jet landed in Islip, the gate area was pretty empty; it’s already 8:30 p.m. The guardians accompanied their vets downstairs — some of them so tuckered out they rode in a wheelchair the whole way.
Music threaded its way upstairs through the open area around the escalators. As they entered the elevators for the ride downstairs, the music got louder and Vosen asked, “Is that for us?” in an incredulous voice. The elevator descended, the doors opened and Vosen had his answer.
A pipe and drum band greeted the veterans as hundreds, maybe a 1,000, people filled the concourse. There were Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, a high school choir, members of both the vets’ and the guardians’ families, local people who greet every returning Honor Flight they can and people who have wandered over to see what’s going on. They all clapped and cheered.
The crowd parted to let the vets through and began to thin as family members reunited with their returning heroes.
Before Vosen’s family spirited him away to hear all about his amazing day, he got up out of the wheelchair and gave Davis’ wife and daughter a kiss on the cheek.
For Davis, “it was the perfect end to the perfect day.”