All that’s left now for three Billings World War II veterans is the waiting. Each has formally applied to make the inaugural journey of Big Sky Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., to see the World War II memorial.
Delphine Olson, 92, who served in the Women’s Army Corps in 1944-45 first as an airplane mechanic and later as a nurse’s aide, said it would be an honor to pay homage to the men and women who gave their lives in battle.
“They gave so much,” Olson said. “The ones who passed on before won’t ever have the opportunity to see it and they are the ones who deserved it. But their spirit will be there.”
Olson’s younger sister, Marie, her brother and her two late husbands all served in World War II. All have since passed. She hopes to make the trip in their honor.
“I just don’t know what to expect,” said Olson, of Billings. “I really want to see it. I expect it will be marble but I wonder if their names will be on it.”
A Montana chapter of the Honor Flight Network was activated in October to honor the state’s World War II veterans.
The purpose of Big Sky Honor Flight is to take World War II veterans to the memorial free of charge. The chartered flight will cost about $150,000 and will be paid for with donations.
To date, 67,000 veterans nationwide have traveled to the capital to see the World War II Memorial that was erected in their honor and dedicated in May 2004. Thirty-three states now have the Honor Flight program.
Some 16.1 million Americans served in uniform during World War II. The youngest of those veterans are in their mid-80s. There are still 18,000 World War II veterans in Montana. Based on 2008 statistics, World War II veterans are dying nationally at the rate of about 1,000 per day.
Walter Popp and David Wittman, both 86 and both of Billings, also hope to be on that inaugural flight. Popp was in the U.S. Navy; Wittman was in the U.S. Army during World War II. When they first heard of the Honor Flight and the possibility of traveling to Washington to see the memorial, they feared it was a scam.
“There are getting to be fewer and fewer of us every day,” Wittman said. “It’s good we’re being remembered though we were the last ones to get a memorial.”
Wittman has seen the memorial twice, but not in its entirety. “It’s so vast and so impressive. And I’d like to see with my buddies. What we did an individuals was minute compared to what we did as a whole division.”
For Popp, seeing the memorial would close the loop on a journey he began when he enlisted at age 17 and was “bound for parts unknown.”
“It means everything in the world to me to be able to see it,” Popp said. “It would complete the series of being in the service. It was put up in honor of us and we’re at the age where time is running out.”
The program was conceived by Earl Morse, a physician assistant with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Ohio, a retired Air Force captain and private pilot. Morse wanted to honor the veterans he had taken care of for nearly three decades. Many did not have the financial wherewithal, strength or stamina to go, so Morse decided to help.
As interest swelled, Morse enlisted help from other private pilots. Word spread, more veterans wanted to participate, and the Honor Flight Network was born.
The plan is to take a group of veterans to the Memorial every April until every World War II veteran in Montana has made the trip. The North Dakota Honor Flight has made 11 trips to the memorial.