Myrtle Beach Honor Flight ready for finale

04/12/2014 12:00 AM

04/09/2014 12:47 PM

A vision of saluting World War II-era veterans across the Grand Strand took off in November 2010.

Honor Flight Grand Strand/Myrtle Beach has made six chartered day trips to visit the war memorials in Washington, D.C. The seventh, the finale, will fly this Wednesday.

Finding veterans from “The Greatest Generation” whose health in their mid- to upper 80s still will let them make this excursion has become a challenge, especially with an average of 1,000 such veterans nationwide who die every day. Every one of them flies for free as a gift, part of each flight’s $60,000 price tag met solely through donations from sponsoring guardians who accompany a veteran or two and foot $500 for their own fares, and through fundraisers from groups across the community, such as Blue Star Mothers.

Bert Cassels of Pawleys Island, a retired Navy captain, has remained the local Honor Flight director and an ambassador since he and wife GG Cassels got the inaugural flight going.

He said the enterprise started as “just kind of a vision” that “just kept building.” When the local entourages visit Washington, the veterans have felt so floored and honored by the people who greet them, from schoolchildren on field trips, to young adults and tourists from other countries.

Bert Cassels called all the people who have met them at all the memorials so “welcoming and wonderful.” That reception results not only for the Grand Strand fliers, but Honor Flights from “all over the country,” he said.

‘Overjoyed’ at greetings

This kindness also reassures the veterans, “who went through an awful lot so many years ago,” thinking that nobody would ever remember them,” Cassels said, calling them “overjoyed.” Then, arriving back home, seeing Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and scout troops among service groups and other well-wishers, “some of these guys just break down and cry.”

“They’re happy that the younger generation has responded to what they did,” Cassels said.

Walter Kollet and wife Angela Kollet have co-chaired the local Honor Flights since the second voyage, in May 2011. Fellow coordinator William Krzyk of Surfside Beach called this pair the “logistical geniuses” behind the scenes with such tasks as arranging carriers such as US Airways; tour-bus transportation, permits and scheduling in the nation’s capital; and managing the finances and all veteran/guardian applications.

The easiest step in the whole process, Walter Kollet said, noting any irony, has been “getting the plane,” but each overall travel experience has its own unique flow. For this finale, a contingent of veterans who were on active duty in the Korean War, will join 47 elders from World War II. So this time, a few extra minutes will be spent at the Korean War Memorial, in addition to the very first stop, the National World War II Memorial, as well as memorials for the Navy, Vietnam War veterans, Abraham Lincoln, Marine Corps, and the “Changing of the Guard” ritual at Arlington National Cemetery. Lunch on a bus will cover other sightseeing.

Kollet, who will visit Normandy, France, in June for the 70th anniversary of D-Day, said that just last week, he noticed that Grand Strand Honor Flights draw so many more Navy veterans, then “it dawned on me why,” because so many ground personnel in the Army and Marines lost their lives in both theaters of World War II and that ship personnel might have had a better chance of survival to return stateside.

Each veteran flying this week also received a book by Larkin Spivey, a retired Marine Corps officer who served in the Vietnam War and in the Nixon administration: “Battlefields & Blessings: Stories of Faith & Courage from World War II” or “Stories of Faith and Courage from the Korean War,” published by God & Country Press in 2009 and 2013, respectively. Inspired by Honor Flight, Spivey also coordinated a chartered bus trip to the memorials in Washington in July for 42 local Korean War veterans.

Flights will continue April 22 from Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in Greer, May 7 from Columbia Metropolitan Airport, and Sept. 6 from Charleston International Airport, and through a group’s bus trips May 16-18 and Sept. 5-7 from suburban Savannah, Ga. Check www.honorflights.org for plans.

‘Total community effort’

The Grand Strand’s embrace of the Honor Flight cause, “volunteering their time, talents, goods and services, and making it easy to call on the business community for financial help” fill a big collective memory for Krzyk. He said the “significant donations” to fly as guardians and “the media shouting our story time and time again to help us locate these senior veterans” have played valuable roles.

“It’s hard to constantly ask for support,” Krzyk said. “Just talk with any volunteer of a worthy cause, especially when the economy is struggling. This isn’t Big City USA, but the community responded like such – very big. Every Honor Flight always made the mark. Each flight funded on time, each seat filled with a deserving World War II veteran or a guardian sponsor.”

Krzyk summed up Honor Flight Grand Strand/Myrtle Beach” as “a total community effort.”

The community extends in other directions, too. At the orientation meeting April 2 for this final flight, Beryl Chandler of Johnsonville, listened to the rundown for this big day coming up for his father, Samuel Chandler, 90, an Army veteran, who was sitting by his guardian, Jane Hughes, whose late husband ran the company that employed the elder Chandler.

His son said that Krzyk confirmed he was the first to inquire about this flight, from back in August, and Hughes said at the meeting that she’s as eager as Samuel Chandler to join this trip, all as a large “family.”

Eugene Rodgers, who turns 90 in May, said he’s making this trip to honor six fellow Army Air Corps colleagues who didn’t return home alive from World War II. A survivor of a German prisoner-of-war camp, the Little River resident said Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes will be his guardian for Honor Flight, doing double duty to help another veteran on the trip.

Living only one way, upbeat, Rodgers said he enjoys touring the United States with his 95-year-old girlfriend in their camper.

“We had to give up league bowling,” he said. “It interferes with our travel.”

Age might only be a number to him.

When we reach 100,” Rodgers said, “we’re going to retire.”

War forgotten no more

Sporting a “KOREAN VETERAN” cap, George J. Cooke of Murrells Inlet was chatting with numerous folks at the Honor Flight meeting, and showing a copy of a booklet “Remembered Moments in Korean War” published by the Korea Health Industry Development Institute for its “Body & Seoul 2013 Korean War Veterans & Families Health Appreciation Event.”

The institute’s photo contest results included three honored entries that Cooke snapped during his nine-month rotation on the Korean peninsula in 1951-52, about a year after his high school graduation in New Jersey, where he had joined the Army National Guard.

He earned a runner-up nod for a photo of five Korean children, including one boy holding a carbine. Another picture shows Cooke sitting on the ground, legs forward, as he bends over and uses his helmet as a sink. The third photo shows an isolated, signpost, 45 miles northeast of South Korea’s capital.

Cooke, who also cooked for his fellow troops, is ready for Honor Flight, a triumph, a long way from the memory of staying in bunkers all day long as North Korean and Chinese forces fired artillery south to celebrate communism on May Day 1952. He’s thankful the Korean War is no longer “the forgotten war.”

Anyone who spots a “Korean Veteran” S.C. commemorative license plate will see the design that resulted from a full-size version that Cooke said he sent to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, used exactly as he submitted. He also was honored with the first plate, No. 1.

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