That’s the sound of a Harley-Davidson idling. Multiply that a hundred times or more, add the guttural whines from German, English and Japanese bikes, and that sets the scene at the Interstate 70 on-ramp in Kingdom City. More than 500 motorcycle riders are awaiting the arrival of two buses carrying World War II veterans who are en route from the St. Louis airport to Columbia. The clock is pushing 2 a.m.
In only 12 minutes, all the bikes pour off the ramp and surround the buses. The veterans are engulfed in the roar of massed machines. The sight of hundreds of riders saluting them brings big smiles, cheers and the occasional tear from the elderly men who have been going nonstop for almost 24-hours.
The Missouri Highway Patrol and local law enforcement, many working as volunteers, have blocked upcoming on-ramps and have made sure no other vehicles can penetrate the loose formation. It’s clear sailing to the Courtyard by Marriott.
Bikers, buses, cops, vets? It’s the middle of the night, for God’s sake. What the hell is going on here?
This is the kick-ass finale of Central Missouri Honor Flight No. 18, winding down in the early morning hours of May 9. To date, 1,021 veterans, mostly of the World War II era, have been flown to Washington, D.C., to see their memorial and to tour other historic sites, all at no cost to them. Central Missouri Honor Flight is a purely volunteer organization. The meticulous planning, fundraising and other services, both on and off the plane, are done out of respect and love for the aging vets. The experience is, they say, a small way of thanking veterans for their service to our country.
A founder and driving force behind CMHF is Steve Paulsell, who serves as vice president and flight director. By chance, the 61-year-old former fire chief happened to see a report from Sarah Hill on KOMU-TV8 about a 2009 Honor Flight from Sedalia to Washington, D.C.; Hill asked if anyone was interested in forming such a group with Columbia as its hub. Paulsell responded, and the rest is history.
The chief of the Boone County Fire Protection District for 31 years, Paulsell was retired, but well-equipped to provide the impetus behind the new group. Enlisting the help of his wife and sister, he accomplished the gargantuan task of turning Columbia into one of the most active Honor Flight hubs in the nation.
A Day To Remember
Before any flight gets off the ground, scores of volunteers must complete hundreds of hours of work. Once veterans are identified and express their desire to go to D.C., Honor Flight conducts a series of planning and logistics events for them and their families. Jan Bell is the coordinator of volunteers.
“There are preflight meetings for veterans and their families,” she says. “We check their medical records and have them reviewed by our physicians. A lot of the vets haven’t flown in years or have never flown, so we fill them in on new regulations.”
Once the paperwork is complete, vets are asked to be at the Courtyard by Marriott by 1 a.m. on the day of their flight, but most arrive by 11 p.m. the night before. Volunteers are on hand to meet them, help them with last-minute preparations and make sure that anyone who wants breakfast is fed.
“We want to do everything we can to make sure these veterans have a day to remember,” Bell says.
“We start loading the two buses at 1 a.m.,” Paulsell says. The task is not as simple as it sounds. On this last flight, 30 of the 61 vets were in wheelchairs. Fortunately, the chartered buses are equipped with hydraulic lifts. Other vets are helped with stairway safety personnel.
Here’s where the Honor Flight Guardians swing into action. These volunteers are charged with making sure the veterans are safe, comfortable, well-fed and able to see all the sights in the nation’s capital. They are also there to talk with the vets and listen to their stories, but at the beginning of the trip, they are assigned other duties, such as loading equipment, snacks and other essential material for the 61 vets and 47 support personnel. “Everybody is working in two or three other capacities, so we can minimize the number of people,” Paulsell says.
The veterans fly for free, compliments of the thousands of individual donors, clubs, businesses and schools. CMHF staff, volunteers and the Guardians pay their own way.
At 2 a.m., a local pastor says a prayer, and the buses are off to St. Louis International Airport.
On board the flight to Baltimore/Washington International Airport is Jim Roberson, who is making his sixth Honor Flight as a Guardian. He has been assigned two veterans to watch over and to make sure they have a memorable day.
“I help them take pictures for themselves, answer questions, keep track of them, and make sure they have drinking water. These are men in their 80s and 90s, so there are the bathroom issues that can make or break the trip for them,” he says.
Roberson, a 59-year-old retired Missouri National Guard helicopter pilot, says medical problems could also ruin the trip. “If anything crops up, we have several doctors and nurses aboard. The veterans probably have more medical care available to them than they would in most doctors’ offices,” he says with a laugh.
Many veterans, who have never spoken about their war experiences, open up to Roberson. “My wife tells me I have the gift of gab,” he says. “I like to talk, to visit with people.” He’s talked with a mechanic who worked on the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb; soldiers shot and wounded by the Germans; and others who escaped harrowing situations.
“Listening to their stories makes you realize the sacrifices these guys made for us,” Roberson says. “They don’t call them the Greatest Generation for nothing.”
“When we land in Baltimore, there are usually 200 to 300 people in the waiting room area to welcome us. It’s a surprise for the veterans,” Paulsell says. The sign-bearing, cheering crowd includes schoolchildren, Scout troops and vets of more recent wars. “It’s quite a celebration,” he says.
John Ames, a World War II Navy vet who served in the South Pacific, says, “I couldn’t get over the little kids who came up to me and shook my hand, and told me ‘thank you for helping to save our country.’ ” He pauses. “There were a couple of times there I thought I’d start bawling like a baby. It was very touching.”
Paulsell agrees: “It’s not so much about the World War II Memorial, but about being remembered and thanked. They think they’ve been forgotten.”
After an obligatory trip to the restrooms before leaving the airport, the group boards buses to the capital. On each seat is a box lunch and a bottle of water. The vets are shown a video about the design and construction of the World War II Memorial, complete with war footage. Paulsell says he can hear many vets remembering, “Yeah, I was there.”
Escorted by the U.S. Park Service Police Department, the buses make a quick tour of downtown D.C., past the sights they won’t have time to visit.
When the group arrives at the World War II Memorial, “we are usually met by members of our congressional delegation, and everyone poses for pictures,” Paulsell says.
Then it’s on to the nearby Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. Because many of the Guardians are Vietnam vets, they also visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, which is also located at the west end of the National Mall.
Then it’s back on the buses for a stop at Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns. CMHF arranged for a special performance by the Old Guard Fife & Drum Corps. As the members of the corps mingled with the vets after the concert, one musician learned a Missouri vet would be 101 in a few weeks, so he got out his flute and played a special “Happy Birthday” for him.
Next, the buses drive past the Pentagon and make a brief stop at the Marine Corps’ Iwo Jima Memorial, which features six soldiers raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi.
On a previous trip, Guardian Roberson says one vet was standing apart from the group, staring at the Iwo Jima Memorial. “What’s the matter?” Roberson asked him, worried that he was bored. “Have you been here before?”
“Yes,” the Marine said, moving about three feet to his left. “But at the time, I was about here.”
After a trip that would have exhausted Marco Polo (not the pool guy), the group is on the way back to BWI. “When we get there,” Paulsell says, “we give each of the vets $10 and escort them to the food court. We call it our ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy. We don’t ask them what they what they ate, and they don’t tell us.”
After the plane takes off from Baltimore, the vets gab with their Guardians and each other, unaware they are in for an in-flight surprise. Then comes an announcement for Mail Call.
“Previously — and unknown to the vets — we had asked the friends and relatives of the veterans to write them letters as if their vet were serving during the war,” Paulsell says. Schoolchildren had also written letters, as well as sororities, fraternities and several businesses in town that had asked their employees to join in. The volunteers wrap each packet of letters in blue and red yarn.
Paulsell recounts a story from a previous flight about a soldier who had grown up as an orphan and, during more than three years of service, had never received a single letter. Then, decades later, at 30,000 feet, he finally got called. Several months later, that veteran passed away with those letters clutched in his hand.
Roberson reflects how much communication has evolved in the past 50 years. “These guys could go months without a letter, or never get one, but when our middle son was in Afghanistan, we could talk to him most any day,” he says.
By this time, the vets have been up for 22 hours or more. But they have one or two surprises left this evening.
Reed Hickam, 53, is the senior ride captain for the Patriot Guard Riders — those are the guys who protect fallen warriors’ families from nutball groups that would invade and disrupt their funerals. He’s also a ride leader for the Honor Flights. Like many things in life, the concept for a motorcycle honor guard began in a small way.
Hickam was contacted by a fellow Patriot Guard member, whose grandfather, a World War II vet, was going on the second Honor Flight. He wanted to know if Hickam would arrange an escort.
“So myself and four other riders showed up,” says Hickam. “With the help of the Missouri Highway Patrol, we escorted those buses in. When we saw those great heroes getting off the bus, they were walking a little taller and had the biggest smiles on their faces. They wanted to know if we did that escort just for them.”
All the bikers could say was, “Yes, sir.”
Hickam was hooked, and the motorcycle escort has become an integral part of the Honor Flight experience. For the 18th flight, Hickam says, “I was told by two veterans that they counted 513 riders. When a World War II vet tells me that’s the number, that’s the number I go with.”
The tremendous growth of the escort group is due to word of mouth, Hickam says. “People go the first time and can’t wait to go again, so they tell their friends to come along. Once people do it, they just can’t stop doing it.”
Various organized motorcycle groups — including the Masonic riders, Harley Owners Group, the Christian Motorcycle Association and many others — fill the ranks of riders. There are also scores of unaffiliated riders that meet every flight. These are the Central Missouri Honor Flight Riders, proudly wearing their own patch with the CMHF logo.
“It’s gotten so large, we’ve had to put together 20 to 25 people as a safety team to stage the bikes and make sure those who have never done a group ride know what to do,” Hickam says. “Safety is our No. 1 concern.”
Hickam is haunted by the fear of a serious accident on the way to Columbia. He’s worried that the vets will blame themselves and that will cast a dark cloud over what should have been a joyful experience.
“It’s so little what we are doing for them, compared to what they’ve done for us — that’s why we are so careful,” he says.
Hickam, fellow ride captain Mike Helm, and their safety team begin staging the bikes several hours prior to the vets’ arrival in Kingdom City. They meet at the Firefighters Memorial to make sure everyone has a full tank of gas and has read the safety rules. Then, they await the signal to move out.
Hickam says he is grateful to the firefighters, who for the past few years, have stayed open late, making their facilities (and coffee) available to the riders. While everyone organizing, Hickam is in constant contact with the buses, so he knows exactly where they are and when he has to move ’em out.
“I hear from them every 10 miles,” he says. “When they pass the Williamsburg exit, we get everybody up and staged, and a minister says a prayer for us. To see 500 heads bowed is awe-inspiring,” he says.
When the buses arrive, Paulsell makes an announcement to the veterans: “On your right there are 500 of the greatest patriots you’ll ever meet — the Central Missouri Honor Flight Riders here to take you the rest of the way home. The bikes begin to pour off the on-ramp and take up position in front of the bus. As they pass, they salute the vets, and Paulsell cranks up a CD of military marches. It’s a moment that every vet remembers with pride.
Home At Last
A crowd of nearly 500 is waiting at the Marriott. A bagpipe band plays as the buses pull in. This trip, there was also a tethered hot air balloon. The balloon is decorated with an American flag. The Patriot Guard, directed by Hickam’s wife, Columbia ride captain Debra, has set up flags along the bus route, and CMHF volunteers have decorated whatever needed decorating. Columbia firefighters have raised a huge American flag, and there is a VFW color guard.
This is the homecoming most of these veterans never received. “Where else can you see cops and bikers, guys in kilts, and families gathered together in one place?” Paulsell asks. “There are no distinctions, they are all Americans.”
“I was amazed to see all those people there that late at night,” says Walter Rolley Jr., a 93-year-old Army vet who served in the 92nd Infantry Division, an all-black outfit in Italy. His job was to transport ammunition to the front lines. “I was lucky enough to get there and back,” he says modestly.
Navy vet John Ames, 85, says, “The way we were treated … I’ve never been treated that way in my life — with so much courtesy and kindness. I’d love to go again if that were possible.”
“We stay with the vets until their families arrive,” Hickam says. He is fascinated by their stories and their courage, and is determined to give back to them for their service.
The Greatest Day
“These guys are heroes,” says Guardian Roberson. “They made this country what it is today. We enjoy the things we enjoy because these guys went out and fought. They were called up, they reported to their units, they were sent off — they didn’t know where they were going or what they were supposed to do. They didn’t know when they were coming back, or even if they were coming back. And when they did return, they just got on a bus or a train, went home, and went back to work — with no homecoming. The Honor Flight is just a small, small way to say ‘thank you’ for what you did.”
The care and concern of everybody involved in the CMHF program is overwhelming, and that has paid dividends.
“This group has changed my way of looking at the older generation,” Bell says. “It’s changed my family in the amount of respect they show. I’ve seen a change in my grandchildren and in my own kids. They are more aware of the Greatest Generation.”
“Our objective as a team is to say we left it all on the field, to use a sports analogy,” Paulsell says. “Many of the vets tell us, ‘This was the greatest day of my life.’ To hear a 90-year-old, who has gone through war, marriages, kids, grandkids and a successful career make such a statement is just overwhelming. That’s why we do it.”
Want To Contribute?
Help find World War II veterans. Many vets don’t know about the Honor Flight program. Ask at work, church and social functions — spread the word. If you know a World War II veteran who has not gone on an Honor Flight, you can obtain an application online at centralmissourihonorflight.com.
Attend homecoming. That’s when the veterans return from Washington, D.C. Help give them the homecoming celebration they never had more than 60 years ago. The next flight is scheduled for July 3, 2012, with arrival back at the Courtyard by Marriott around 12:50 a.m. on July 4. What better way to kick off Independence Day than by thanking the very vets who protected that independence? Everyone is welcome; bring the entire family, flags, and signs. Plan on arriving by 12:15 a.m.
Donations are welcome. If you want to help keep the program running, send your donations to Central Missouri Honor Flight, 1400 Forum Blvd., Suite 38, Box 334, Columbia, MO 65203. CMHF is a 501 (c) (3) corporation.