It's official: Six months after the Big Sky Honor Flight Program was launched in Montana, about 90 World War II veterans will make the inaugural flight to Washington, D.C. to visit "their" memorial.
Some of those selected to make the inaugural June 15-16 flight have already been notified. Al Litle of Westpark Village, a senior living community in Billings, is one of them.
"I've been wanting to see the memorial, but when you get to be 93 like I am you begin to wonder if it's something you will ever really accomplish," Litle said beaming. "It's a privilege and a pleasure to get to go."
The first flight will leave Logan International Airport on Friday, June 15 at 8 a.m. and return the next day at 9 p.m. to a "heroes welcome." The trip will include stops at national memorials and landmarks in the Washington area, including Arlington National Cemetery. The featured stop will be the National World War II Memorial, which opened in 2004 as a tribute to the millions of Americans who served and died.
The non-stop chartered flight will cost about $150,000 and will be paid for entirely with donations. Organizers said from the outset that once they reached $100,000 they would book the flight.
On Monday, it was mission accomplished. With a $23,252 check from Wal-Mart stores across Montana, and a $5,000 check from Electrical Consultants Inc., the balance in the checkbook was $118,317 and growing.
"Our company has a long history of supporting veterans, but this one is kind of special," said David J. Anderson, vice president of strategic development for Electrical Consultants. "There aren't too many World War II veterans left and there are fewer every year.
With that, Anderson challenged businesses throughout Montana to match his company's donation to ensure that not only the inaugural flight get off the ground but also a second, third and fourth flight to accommodate all Montana World War II veterans. Plans are already underway for a second flight this fall.
"It is a big goal, but it's the least we can do for this group of Montanans who stood up to tyranny at one of the pivotal moments in our history," said Bill Kennedy, a member of the Big Sky Honor Flight committee. "There are a few thousand World War II veterans left in Montana and unfortunately some of them die every day. We are truly in a race against time to get these flights finished."
While businesses have played a significant role in helping to underwrite the trip, some of the more surprising contributions have come from elementary, middle and high school youth. Youth from as far away as Havre and Lame Deer to as close as Laurel and Billings have contributed to the cause, said Beth Bouley, president of the Big Sky Honor Flight committee.
The veterans who will be on the first flight will be notified by mail in the next few days with instructions on how to confirm their attendance. Top priority is being given to terminally ill veterans. More than 180 veterans have already applied to make the first flight.
Delphine Olson, 92, also of Westpark Village, learned Monday that she would be on that first flight. She served in the Women's Army Corps in 1944-45, first as an airplane mechanic and later as a nurse's aide
"I'm getting so excited," Olson said. "I didn't expect it."
Big Sky Honor Flight is a non-profit organization and is part of a national network that aims to recognize the courage and sacrifice of the "Greatest Generation." Honor Flight was conceived by Earl Morse, a physician assistant and retired Air Force captain from Ohio as a tribute to the veterans to whom he provided care. In May 2005, Morse arranged for six small planes to transport 12 World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to see their memorial.
By the end of the first year Honor Flight had transported 137 World War II veterans to see their memorial. By the end of 2011 the national Honor Flight network had flown about 83,000 veterans to see the memorial. Thirty-three states now have the Honor Flight program.
The National World War II Memorial pays homage to the 16 million Americans who served during the war.