I'm thankful that they are recognizing how we kept this country safe. We were all just only kids. —Army infantry veteran James Carey
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Four months ago, only six World War II veterans had signed on to fly to Washington, D.C., in May for a special tour to see the memorials built in their honor.
"We thought we were done with our Honor Flights in South Carolina," said Bill Dukes, who has helped organize more than 20 Honor Flight daylong trips for more than 2,500 veterans since 2008. "We didn't think we could find any more veterans healthy enough to go."
But ever since the publication in February of an Associated Press story that said the Honor Flight organization was seeking additional veterans to travel on May 13, they have been signing up from all around the state, Dukes said. Now, about 70 World War II veterans are scheduled to go on the trip, along with more than 117 Korean War veterans, guides and staff.
In fact, so many Korean War veterans asked to be put on a waiting list another trip has been scheduled from Columbia to Washington on Oct. 14, Dukes said.
"We're not done by a long shot," Dukes said with a broad smile.
The tour takes in the memorial dedicated to those who served in World War II, as well as the Korean, Vietnam and Iwo Jima memorials. It also stops at Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns.
A group of volunteer physicians and nurses go over each veteran's medical records ahead of time to make sure they can handle the rigors of the tour.
Many of the elderly veterans — some in wheelchairs or with walkers — are accompanied by younger companions who help them maneuver on and off the airplanes and buses during the lengthy tour. The entire flight and tours are free for the veterans while their companion guardians pay a $500 fee to cover expenses.
Dozens of the veterans gathered recently in Columbia for a trip orientation.
"Can't wait to go," said Edward Purcell Jr., who trained as a Navy pilot in the waning days of World War II. The 89-year-old retiree from Columbia was shot down twice during the Korean conflict, earning both a Purple Heart and Air Medal.
Army infantry veteran James Carey, 92, said he's is especially looking forward to meeting other former servicemen to exchange a few stories.
"It will be interesting to enjoy the companionship of other military men," said Carey, who served as a 21-year-old with the 11th Armored Division as it battled Nazi Germany during the Battle of the Bulge. Carey earned two Purple Hearts, one for the amputation of his left leg.
Asked if he had any questions, Carey quipped, "I'm interested in whether they leave us any time for a nap!"
Then on a more serious note, he added, "I'm thankful that they are recognizing how we kept this country safe. We were all just only kids."
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