By Richard Mundy
For Hometown News
They came from many different places, but they were all headed to the same destination: "Over There". The looks on their unlined faces were ones of anticipation, curiosity and perhaps fear for they were being sent for the first time away from their homes and families and sent around the world to defend the freedom and ideals of their country.
That was seven decades ago. Today some of those faces, now lined with age and a lifetime of responsibility and experience, were going on a different trip. Except this time they knew their destination was to visit the memorials that a grateful nation created to honor this "greatest generation."
In 2008 three Deland Rotary Clubs learned of the Honor Air Program conceived by retired Air Force Capt. Earl Morse, working for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Ohio. The goal of the clubs was to organize and fund 10 expense-free trips from Daytona to Washington DC, honoring about 100 local WWII vets per trip to the military war memorials.
On Sept. 29, the Honor Air program flew its 10th and last flight, having honored about 1,000 veterans during the program. More than $800,000 has been raised by donations from sponsors to realize this goal.
There were smiles all around as the vets gathered for their departure. Former Ship's Cook Second Class Lou Pancoast, 84, of Oak Hill, said he has not seen any of the memorials and his expectations were that "We're going to be busy, busy, busy." He served first on a destroyer and then a cruiser. The most memorable episode during his tour was that "Okinawa was rough, and Borneo was a big invasion. And then we captured some enemy and took them to Shanghai near the end of the war. I joined when I was 16 (Navy). I went down on my 16th birthday; my dad went down with me. I told them I didn't go to the Navy to sit somewhere. I went to go to war." He "served in the Pacific for four years".
During their D.C. trip plans were to attend the WWII Memorial, the Korean and Vietnam War Memorials, attend a hosted lunch, and visit the Marine Corps Memorial (also called the Iwo Jima Memorial).
Sam Shoup, 90, of Edgewater, originally from Atlanta, was deployed almost a year after Pearl Harbor. He was an Aviation Machinist's Mate, First Class. He was looking forward to seeing the memorials, as he had not visited any of them.
After a group photograph, the vets visited Arlington and attended a special Wreath Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The Air Force Memorial was their last stop before heading for home.
John W. Kefle, 85, of New Smyrna Beach, joined the Navy on his 17th birthday and served two years as a Seaman First Class. He said he first shipped out to "Pearl Harbor, over to Okinawa, then Guam and then the Philippines. I was in the Philippines when the war ended." He said he "was on board ship when they announced that the United States had just dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. And the next day or so they bombed Nagasaki. We were close to there and could look over and see the rubble but they said we can't get near because it might be contaminated."
Charles E. Rowell, 87, of Oak Hill, "went in the Navy when I was 16" in 1942. "I was in the invasion on D-Day at Normandy. We didn't know what was going to happen. We were part of a big convoy. And then all of a sudden all hell broke loose."
Rowell was one of many that made the military a career. He retired after 30 years in 1973. He had two brothers in the Navy that joined in 1941.
Each of the veterans travel with a volunteer "guardian" to help with any special needs they might have. Rowell's guardian was his next-door neighbor, Petronella Uytteuaal, who was born in Holland and now works at AmVets. Her "parents and grandparents were in the underground during the war." She now lives next door to Rowell.
Raymond Allen, one of the many supporters as well as a guardian going on the trip is a 24-year veteran himself who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and South Korea during his tours. He now works for the Volusia Veterans' Services Agency that assists former service personnel. This was his first trip. Asked why he was doing this he said, "To show respect to the men and women who served before us."
All the guardians and supporters who went on the trip paid for their own expenses.
Charles Hargrove Sr., of DeLand, a career Army first sergeant, brought his own guardian in the person of his son Charles Hargrove Jr. His son graduated from the Naval Academy. Hargrove Jr. decided to "go along to be with him (his father) and keep him out of trouble."
Hargrove Sr. served in Japan in 1945 and his most memorable event was surviving an 8.5 scale earthquake during his tour.
A reported 1,200 people showed up at the Daytona International Airport to welcome the vets home. Friends, family and many supporters and volunteers patiently awaited the arrival of the plane that was nearly an hour late. During the wait the Embry-Riddle ROTC Cadets Color Guard, the Volusia County Sheriff's Honor Guard, dancers, a vocalist and the 65-member Daytona State College Community Symphonic Band, directed by Dr. Doug Peterson, entertained the crowd.
The vets arrived to a fanfare and many cheers. There were a lot of handshakes, applause, signs, flags and more than a few kisses.
Charles Kitching, of New Smyrna Beach, a Bronze Star recipient who joined the infantry when he was 18, said about the welcome home, "I'm overwhelmed - I can't believe this. It's more than I expected. We ran out of time and didn't get to see the Vietnam Wall". He also reported that his favorite memorial was the Korean Memorial.
And like most of these veterans the humility and devotion and thanks were evident on every face that returned through the rows of admirers and grateful citizens.
The National Honor Flight network has indicated that it will turn its focus to veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars in the future.