It’s become cliché to refer to the men and women who served their country during World War II as “the greatest generation.” But I would tell you that it’s an understatement. It was 60 years after the end of WWII – in 2005 – that the World War II Memorial was opened to honor these heroes who, in my mind, saved the world.
My father served in WWII. I followed in his footsteps, serving in the U.S. Navy. That’s given me a deep appreciation for what these heroes accomplished. Dad never got to see the memorial before he died. That sparked my passion for being involved with the Arkansas Honor Flight.
Honor Flight is a nationwide program that provides free transportation for WWII veterans to Washington, D.C. to see the WWII Memorial. With the financial support of Tyson Foods, Walmart and the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, roughly 900 WWII veterans from Arkansas and surrounding states have made the trip to see their memorial. In total, we’ve flown 11 Honor Flights from Northwest Arkansas and Little Rock between 2009 and 2014. The Arkansas Honor Flight program ended after the May 2014 flight due to the advancing age of WWII veterans and the fulfillment of all of the existing applications from veterans who wanted to go.
Every trip was a different adventure, filled with different stories of acts of heroism and the horrors of war. There were a lot of tears shed – some for a lost platoon mate or family member, some in happiness of fulfilling a wish to see their memorial. But mostly we saw a lot of wide smiles as they toured the military memorials in the nation’s capital.
Perhaps even more fulfilling for these veterans was the acknowledgement of what they had been through and that it’s still remembered today. When our WWII veterans arrived back home after the war, many were basically just dropped off in San Francisco or New York. They may not have had enough money to get home. They certainly didn’t get a parade, even though they won the war; they saved the world.
When the May 2014 Arkansas Honor Flight arrived back at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, the 80 vets traveling had one final surprise waiting for them. Hundreds of people – veterans, families, friends, supporters and the Rogers Heritage High School Band – stood waiting for them, waving flags, holding signs and cheering for these heroes from the past as they made their way down a narrow path in the sea of people. It was their homecoming parade at last.
Bill McKenzie is director of aviation for Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods and chairman of the
non-profit that funded the Arkansas Honor Flight program. Bill and a small
group of dedicated volunteers arranged seven Honor Flights from northwest
Arkansas and four from Little Rock between 2009 and 2014.