This story originally aired on Sept. 24, 2006
For more information visit www.honorair.com and www.honorflight.org
Veterans Day Came a little early last year for a group of World War II vets from North Carolina, aged 79 to 102. As CBS Sunday Morning contributor Bill Geist reports, they journeyed to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
They were there because Jeff Miller, a local businessman in Hendersonville, N.C., started a campaign last year to send every World War II veteran in the country who wanted to see it.
"Sixteen million served in World War II. Now there's probably just a little more than 3 million alive," he said. "They're dying at a rate of anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 a day so, yeah, there was a lot of urgency."
After all, the memorial was built for them.
"I look at it this way," Miller said. "Everything good I have in my life is because of them - I mean everything. We wanted to take the veterans there to the World War II Memorial who had not been - that was the number one thing - and that had financial or physical limitations, or both.
They'd probably have to charter a plane. But soon they needed a bigger plane and then two bigger planes. This was going to cost a small community big bucks. Henderson rallied and came through on fundraising.
"In less than 12 weeks we raised-I think the number was $133,000," Miller said. "I'd be walking down the street and somebody would come up and hand me five dollars."
Individuals and clubs like the American Legion pitched in.
"They raised $2,300 selling spaghetti - that's a lot of spaghetti at $5 a dinner," Miller said. "Little Henderson elementary school - they had a jar where they put all the change for a party at the end of school, and they took that jar and took that money and sponsored two veterans out of it."
The local Boys and Girls Club raised $300 - enough to send former Sergeant Fred Logan, who served in the Pacific.
"I thank them from my heart," Logan said. "This is the best thing that ever happened to me."
Sergeant Henry Bradley also went. He served in a front lines surgical hospital and saw unspeakable things.
"I remember a lot of it, but I don't talk about it," Bradley said. "I wanted to just forget as much of it as possible cause most of it was not pleasant. We wasn't glory-hunting. All we wanted to do was get on with our lives."
World War II veterans are known for rarely speaking of their valor and sacrifice.
"We call them the humble heroes," Jeff Miller said. "We kid them all the time about it was their own fault they didn't have a memorial because they weren't gonna come home and build one to themselves. That took other generations to build."
Indeed, the World War II Memorial didn't open until 2004 - 59 years after the war ended.
Lieutenant Joe Collins didn't tell his children for a half century about being shot down in a B-24 and becoming a prisoner of war.
"It was get out before it went down or blew up," he said. "We wound up in Stalag-Luft 3. We have some of the letters I sent. This is my favorite. It says, 'Well, hon, I'm a prisoner of war.'"
He'll never forget liberation day.
"I was looking into the city and I could see the German swastika up there - started coming down and our flag went up there," he remembered. "And Patton came in - he came right in on his jeep there - that was something."
Victor Brown, who also flew in a B-24 bomber, was chosen to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (He passed away several days before the story re-aired.)
"That to me is a great honor, and I'm very, very touched is all I can say," Brown said. "I just hope I can do it. I'll crawl if I have to."
"There's 24 steps at the Tomb of the Unknown. It's pretty steep, so they're trying to make arrangements for us to go around," Jeff Miller said. "We've got six EMT guys going with us each day - a doctor going each day. We'll have 50 to 60 guardians each day to push wheelchairs, get 'em drinks, help them up and down stairs."
Two-hundred and twenty Hendersonville vets signed up for the first of what have come to be called honorflights. They arrived in Washington to a hero's welcome and were escorted to the memorial, where some were surprised by friends and family. Joe Collins' son was there to meet him.
For two hours they toured the memorial, met comrades in arms, mourned the 400,000 war dead who'd never see it and the millions of veterans for whom it was built too late. Five have died since signing up for this trip.
But the veterans who attended were feeling the appreciation so long overdue in this, a final tribute to the men-boys then, really, in their teens and twenties-who answered the call and saved the world. Think of it.