Central Missouri Honor Flight Riders offer an escort to the heroes of World War II.
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Potato, potato, potato.
That’s the sound of a Harley-Davidson idling. Multiply that a hundred times or more, add the guttural whines from German, English and Japanese bikes, and that sets the scene at the Interstate 70 on-ramp in Kingdom City. More than 500 motorcycle riders are awaiting the arrival of two buses carrying World War II veterans who are en route from the St. Louis airport to Columbia. The clock is pushing 2 a.m.
In only 12 minutes, all the bikes pour off the ramp and surround the buses. The veterans are engulfed in the roar of massed machines. The sight of hundreds of riders saluting them brings big smiles, cheers and the occasional tear from the elderly men who have been going nonstop for almost 24-hours.
The Missouri Highway Patrol and local law enforcement, many working as volunteers, have blocked upcoming on-ramps and have made sure no other vehicles can penetrate the loose formation. It’s clear sailing to the Courtyard by Marriott.
Bikers, buses, cops, vets? It’s the middle of the night, for God’s sake. What the hell is going on here?
This is the kick-ass finale of Central Missouri Honor Flight No. 18, winding down in the early morning hours of May 9. To date, 1,021 veterans, mostly of the World War II era, have been flown to Washington, D.C., to see their memorial and to tour other historic sites, all at no cost to them. Central Missouri Honor Flight is a purely volunteer organization. The meticulous planning, fundraising and other services, both on and off the plane, are done out of respect and love for the aging vets. The experience is, they say, a small way of thanking veterans for their service to our country.
A founder and driving force behind CMHF is Steve Paulsell, who serves as vice president and flight director. By chance, the 61-year-old former fire chief happened to see a report from Sarah Hill on KOMU-TV8 about a 2009 Honor Flight from Sedalia to Washington, D.C.; Hill asked if anyone was interested in forming such a group with Columbia as its hub. Paulsell responded, and the rest is history.
The chief of the Boone County Fire Protection District for 31 years, Paulsell was retired, but well-equipped to provide the impetus behind the new group. Enlisting the help of his wife and sister, he accomplished the gargantuan task of turning Columbia into one of the most active Honor Flight hubs in the nation.
A Day To Remember
Before any flight gets off the ground, scores of volunteers must complete hundreds of hours of work. Once veterans are identified and express their desire to go to D.C., Honor Flight conducts a series of planning and logistics events for them and their families. Jan Bell is the coordinator of volunteers.
“There are preflight meetings for veterans and their families,” she says. “We check their medical records and have them reviewed by our physicians. A lot of the vets haven’t flown in years or have never flown, so we fill them in on new regulations.”
Once the paperwork is complete, vets are asked to be at the Courtyard by Marriott by 1 a.m. on the day of their flight, but most arrive by 11 p.m. the night before. Volunteers are on hand to meet them, help them with last-minute preparations and make sure that anyone who wants breakfast is fed.
“We want to do everything we can to make sure these veterans have a day to remember,” Bell says.
“We start loading the two buses at 1 a.m.,” Paulsell says. The task is not as simple as it sounds. On this last flight, 30 of the 61 vets were in wheelchairs. Fortunately, the chartered buses are equipped with hydraulic lifts. Other vets are helped with stairway safety personnel.
Here’s where the Honor Flight Guardians swing into action. These volunteers are charged with making sure the veterans are safe, comfortable, well-fed and able to see all the sights in the nation’s capital. They are also there to talk with the vets and listen to their stories, but at the beginning of the trip, they are assigned other duties, such as loading equipment, snacks and other essential material for the 61 vets and 47 support personnel. “Everybody is working in two or three other capacities, so we can minimize the number of people,” Paulsell says.
The veterans fly for free, compliments of the thousands of individual donors, clubs, businesses and schools. CMHF staff, volunteers and the Guardians pay their own way.
At 2 a.m., a local pastor says a prayer, and the buses are off to St. Louis International Airport.
On board the flight to Baltimore/Washington International Airport is Jim Roberson, who is making his sixth Honor Flight as a Guardian. He has been assigned two veterans to watch over and to make sure they have a memorable day.
“I help them take pictures for themselves, answer questions, keep track of them, and make sure they have drinking water. These are men in their 80s and 90s, so there are the bathroom issues that can make or break the trip for them,” he says.
Roberson, a 59-year-old retired Missouri National Guard helicopter pilot, says medical problems could also ruin the trip. “If anything crops up, we have several doctors and nurses aboard. The veterans probably have more medical care available to them than they would in most doctors’ offices,” he says with a laugh.
Many veterans, who have never spoken about their war experiences, open up to Roberson. “My wife tells me I have the gift of gab,” he says. “I like to talk, to visit with people.” He’s talked with a mechanic who worked on the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb; soldiers shot and wounded by the Germans; and others who escaped harrowing situations.
“Listening to their stories makes you realize the sacrifices these guys made for us,” Roberson says. “They don’t call them the Greatest Generation for nothing.”