There is a special plane ride heading out of Columbia for Washington, D.C., today.
Not some politician or lobbyist heading to the nation’s capital, but a planeload of 100 World War II and Korean War veterans – the men who literally saved the world – will board the latest S.C. Honor Flight to see the memorials and monuments just days before America honors its war dead on Memorial Day.
Of the 100 veterans going, eight are residents at Park Pointe Village of Rock Hill, a retirement community that is home to 65 veterans out of 210 residents.
There will be a police escort to and from the Washington airport, and these men will see the memorials for the wars and more. They will see the names of the men who died in a war that each survived.
“Those are the ones who died and, somehow, we didn’t get killed,” said John Sziber, 92, an Army Air Corps veteran of so many missions that half the planes in his Pacific squadron were shot down. “It makes you think of those poor guys that didn’t come home.”
Sziber, a New Jersey native, was the son of Romanian immigrants, but never thought twice about doing his duty for years in a war.
Leo Zande, 89, from Michigan, was in the Army in the Philippines and New Guinea in the Pacific.
“I went in thinking I’d get shot and get killed over there,” Zande said. “But we went. That’s what we did then. That war was clear – right versus wrong. These wars today, it is not so clear.”
Dave Kegley, 86, part of the Army occupation of Japan at the end of World War II after getting drafted straight out of a railroad yard telegraph operator’s office, said there were never any second thoughts about serving in World War II.
Bo Lowry, 87, born and raised in York, would end up a pharmacist later in life, just like his father. But in 1943, after high school, Lowry joined the Navy and spent the next two years in the Pacific, where so many tens of thousands died.
Lowry has already been to see the World War II Memorial.
“It gives you chill bumps,” he said. “I’m not an emotional guy, but those names, those people who were killed, it really affects you.”
Also from Park Pointe on the honor flight today will be World War II Navy veterans Bob Healan and Gordon Worden, Korean War Army veteran Jim Kennedy, and Korean War Navy veteran Bill Todd.
The flight is part of the program that has sent more than 100,000 veterans to Washington in the past decade. All the veterans ride for free and for many, so advanced in age, it is the only chance any will get to see the memorial.
But these tough guys will walk if they can walk. Those who can’t walk will ride in wheelchairs.
“These veterans did huge things in this world,” said Boyd Gilbert, a Park Pointe resident and Vietnam War veteran who helped organize today’s flight. “For many who go, it is very emotional.”
These tough guys do not brag about service. They just left farms and factories and cities and towns and did it. And many they knew died doing it.
Zande is unsure what emotion he will feel when he sees the memorial for the first time. All those names of men he ate with, trained with and fought with.
He lived. They died. Every one was heroic.
Today, the heroes who lived and still live get a chance to thank their buddies who died in a war they all fought for the rest of us.