Don Grauman, 89, of Billings, had heard about Big Sky Honor Flight, a program that flies World War II veterans for free to Washington, D.C., to see the National World War II Memorial. But he never thought of applying.
The program, he figured, was for the men and women who came home injured and for those highly decorated. He was neither and did not believe he should take a precious seat on a flight. He believed others were more deserving.
After seeing “Honor Flight, One Last Mission,” on Tuesday, the World War II veteran thinks differently and is one of more than 300 veterans on a waiting list to make one of the flights.
“It would be overwhelming to see our memorial and all the headstones at Arlington,” he said. “I just want the memories.”
Grauman was one audience member in a sold-out crowd Tuesday attending the documentary film. There was another showing Tuesday and one scheduled for Wednesday. Both are sold out. The film is being shown to help raise money to send every able-bodied World War II veteran in Montana on the trip.
"Honor Flight, One Last Mission" is a heartwarming film about four living World War II veterans and a Wisconsin community that comes together to make the trip a reality. Volunteers race against the clock to fly thousands of World War II veterans, all of whom are in their late 80s and early 90s, to Washington, D.C., to see the memorial constructed in their honor in 2004, nearly 60 years after their epic struggle.
For many of these veterans, it was the first time they have been thanked for their World War II service. For many, it is also the last big trip of their lives. The film, which opened in late 2012, is on tour across the country to help raise awareness and money for the flights.
It’s often uncomfortable for World War II veterans to talk about the war, but the Honor Flight experience creates a comfort zone in which veterans find themselves talking about things they’ve long kept private.
Thomas Arthur Hanel, the father of Billings Mayor Tom Hanel, was aboard the second Big Sky Honor Flight in September 2012.
“It brought back a lot of memories, a lot of good memories and a lot of bad memories, but more good than bad,” the elder Hanel said. “It was just so good to be among my friends. I appreciate everything Big Sky Honor Flight did for me.”
Paulette Wagner, of Billings, attended the Tuesday matinee. Her father served in the South Pacific during World War II. She attended to support all the veterans and the effort to send them to Washington, D.C.
“It’s just fabulous what they’re doing for these veterans,” Wagner said.
Nearly 200 Montana World War II veterans have already made two tours to Washington as part of the program.
The third flight is set for April 21-22, followed by a fourth flight May 19-20.
The 36-hour trip includes stops at significant memorials and landmarks in the Washington D. C. area, including Arlington National Cemetery and the Marine Corps War Memorial. The highlight of the trip is the stop at the National World War II Memorial.
Other fundraising efforts continue, including work by local high school and elementary students as well as the “Pies for Veterans” voucher sales by Key Club members and Perkins restaurants. Through that effort, Perkins and the Key Club members will sell pie vouchers for $14 each, with $7 allocated to help fund future flights. Organizers hope to raise $15,000 through the pie drive, which continues into February.
About $152,000 is needed to get each flight off the ground.