With 600 World War II veterans dying every day, Honor Flight chapters nationally are at a crossroads — declare mission accomplished and shut down or extend the free service to the next generation of war veterans?
As many as 25 percent of Honor Flight Network’s 129 regional hubs, from which 100,000 veterans have been given free trips to see their war memorial in the nation’s capital, might not transition to Korean War veterans, according to Diane Gresse, executive director of the organization founded and based in Springfield.
Earlier this month, Alamo Honor Flight in San Antonio announced that, having exhausted its waiting list and finding that too few World War II veterans have the stamina for the trip, its final flight would be Aug. 16.
“With us being a volunteer organization, people get tired. People get burned out,” Gresse said.
Ultimately, the decision to transition from World War II veterans to veterans of other wars will rest with each of Honor Flight’s independent chapters, or hubs, now found in 41 states.
For Honor Flight Dayton, founded in 2009, the decision to extend the trip to Korean War veterans, in addition to Vietnam veterans with a terminal illness, was an easy one.
“When you see what it means to these veterans, it’s hard not to continue on,” said Jim Salamon, president and director of Honor Flight Dayton, which has a flight to Washington, D.C., scheduled for this morning.
When the plane touches back down late today at Dayton International Airport, Honor Flight Dayton will have given 141 veterans since April a free trip to see their memorials, Salamon said.
Of those, Korean War veterans are outnumbering World War II veterans, 84 to 55.
It happens to be a timely statistic — July 27 marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War’s end in a cease-fire after three years of fighting that claimed 36,574 American lives.
John F. Neidhart, an 83-year-old resident of Springfield’s Northridge area, will be among the Korean War veterans on today’s Honor Flight out of Dayton.
Neidhart lost his wife of almost 61 years, Marilyn, last year.
“It’s been a struggle to get through that,” he said.
They married during a three-day leave he got during basic training in 1951.
Not long after, Neidhart was en route with the 19th Infantry Regiment of the Army’s 24th Division to Korea, where he found unbearable cold and mold covering the ammo in his machine gun nest.
“You had to have the good Lord looking over you over there,” he said. “If you didn’t, you were a dead pigeon.”
Gresse said that Honor Flight headquarters began urging its hubs to begin accepting other veterans in chronological order — with priority still given to World War II veterans — last year.
Around the time Honor Flight began in 2005, there were about four million World War II veterans nationally. Today, that number stands at close to just 1.4 million.
By comparison, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are 2.2 million Korean War veterans and 7.4 million Vietnam-era veterans.
“We know that the Korean and Vietnam veterans have been patiently waiting,” Gresse said.
Network headquarters in Springfield has received calls from those veterans, she said, inquiring about a trip. But, she added, they haven’t been encouraging them to apply until now.
“We had hubs that had such a backlog of World War II veterans,” she said.
The hubs accepting Korean War veterans, including Honor Flight Columbus, vary largely by region. It’s not uncommon for a hub in a western state, where airfare is costlier, to still have 1,000 World War II veterans on its waiting list, she said.
But, the number of hubs also ebbs and flows.
“Where we might lose a hub this week,” Gresse said, “we might gain two next week.”
Then there’s the issue that Korean War veterans might not be aware that many regional hubs have, or likely will have, a seat waiting for them.
“We know that they don’t all know,” Salamon said.
Honor Flight began in Springfield as a way for area World War II veterans incapable of getting to Washington on their own to see their memorial, which was new at the time.
That mission went national, and has attracted major attention along the way. In just the past year, Honor Flight has been the subject of both a documentary movie and a story in People magazine.
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, a well-known World War II combat veteran, even signed on as an honorary adviser to Honor Flight.
But, while it’s possible that more Korean and Vietnam veterans already have visited their memorials — both were dedicated before the National World War II Memorial — they haven’t done so Honor Flight-style, organizers say.
“A lot of Vietnam veterans haven’t gone to see the wall because there’s been so much hurt there,” Gresse said. “One of the wonderful things about Honor Flight is the camaraderie.
“It’s a completely different trip.”
John Neidhart hasn’t been one to talk about his experience in Korea.
“It doesn’t sit well with me,” he said. “I know I had to go over there. I was drafted into the Army and I made the best of it that I could.”
Jim Neidhart, John Neidhart’s 53-year-old son, has offered to drive his father to see the Korean War memorial due to what he called Honor Flight’s “brutal itinerary.”
Participants have to report to Dayton International at 3 a.m.
“I said, ‘Dad, I haven’t pulled an all-nighter since college days,’” Jim Neidhart said. “But, he wants to be with his veteran buddies.”