MISSOULA — John M. Richards enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps League out of high school in 1946, hitting boot camp in San Diego then serving in the VMR 142 transport squad before joining the reserves when his two years were up. He was called back to active duty in 1950 when he served in Korea for 13 months.
The “young guy” at 85, Richards is one of roughly 90 World War II veterans from Montana being flown to Washington, D.C., on April 21 to be honored and to tour the war memorials there with the Big Sky Honor Flight.
Richards, of Hamilton, was a young child when last in Washington, D.C.
“Of course, none of that (memorials) was there,” he said. “This is going to be just outstanding.”
Final flight paperwork for veterans taking the trip was prepared Sunday as Bill Kennedy, Yellowstone County commissioner and Honor Flight committee vice president, explained the details of the trip. Western Montana will send 34 veterans on the April flight, which is free for veterans.
Lester Kath, 86, served as an Army medic in Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945-46. He lost a brother in WWII.
The flight will take him for the first time to Washington, D.C., to tour the memorials and pay tribute to those lost.
“It should be pretty exciting,” said Kath, of Hamilton, whose trip to D.C. on the Honor Flight was delayed a year after he suffered a heart attack.
Honor Flight representatives confirmed on Sunday that Kath will ride with other veterans from Hamilton to Missoula on April 20. They’ll then take an Angel Flight to Billings before boarding a chartered flight to D.C.
The flight will depart from Billings early on April 21 and return late April 22.
“This is your flight. This is a trip to say thank you. There shouldn’t be a worry in the world for you,” Kennedy told the vets during the pre-trip planning meeting Sunday at the Village Senior Residence in Missoula.
The 36-hour trip includes stops at the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial, followed by a banquet. Day 2 includes the visit to the National WWII Memorial, where veterans will lay a wreath on the Montana pillar.
Kennedy told those at the meeting to expect other Honor Flight groups to be at the WWII memorial.
“A lot of people will want to say thank you, shake your hand,” Kennedy said. “Brace yourself, you’re about to meet a lot of people.”
The second day concludes with stops at a host of other memorials before the flight returns to Montana.
Many veterans are accompanied by escorts. There’s also a full medical team with the group.
Montana Lt. Gov. Gen. John Walsh will be on the April flight.
Retired from the Montana National Guard, Walsh commanded Montana’s 163rd Infantry Battalion during combat operations in Iraq.
Wheelchairs are available for everyone and Kennedy encouraged veterans to make use of them during the “grueling” days in D.C.
The Transportation Security Administration takes Honor Flight participants through streamlined screening processes.
Every detail is set and for veterans, no money is necessary, Kennedy said.
Dennis Winter, of Ronan, is taking his dad, 95-year-old Pete, on the flight.
Dennis made sure on Sunday that Pete would have access to a wheelchair for the trip.
A B24 bomber pilot for the Army/Air Force in WWII, Pete was taken hostage in Hungary after being shot down during his 19th mission.
He was a “guest of the Russian army” until he was taken back to Italy to finish his missions, Dennis said.
The flight will be Pete’s first time in D.C.
Honor Flights across the country have taken thousands of veterans to D.C. The goal of the Big Sky Honor Flight is to get every WWII veteran to the memorial.
The April trip is the third out of Montana. Four more flights are scheduled through the fall.
Flights cost $155,000 each. All of the funds for the third trip have been raised and the fourth flight is mostly funded, Kennedy said.
In March, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Foundation gave $60,000 to the Big Sky Honor Flight. Delta Airlines pitched in a $5,000 grant.
After the April trip, the next Big Sky Honor flight will take place May 19-20; another is scheduled for June 16-17.