Wednesday, May 08, 2013


Leader staff writer

Anyone coming to the Little Rock airport Saturday evening with the throngs of fans lined up two deep from the arrival escalator to the baggage claim, a band playing and the Little Rock Fire Department with its ladder trucks stretched out over the roadway with an American flag on top would have thought that former President Bill Clinton was in town.

Or President Barrack Obama.

Or that the country group Alabama reunited for a Little Rock concert.

It was not of those.

All those people were cheering, applauding and dancing and clearly showing their love for 82 Arkansas World War II vets who flew to Washington earlier in the day to visit their memorial and were returning back to Little Rock.

Army veteran Robert Hall, 94, of Jacksonville, one of the vets on the trip, had tears in his eyes and difficulty expressing how wonderful the reception was.

Conway’s Johnnie Walter, 91, an infantry veteran in a wheelchair, shook hands with everyone on both sides of the walkway and got hugs from all the women. “What a reception. I feel like a rock star,” he said.

His chaperone on the flight was Deb Cunningham, a Marine veteran herself. “We had a wonderful time,” she said. “Johnnie really enjoyed it.”

A band from Camp Robinson played “God Bless the USA” and then went into the military marches and hymns as young girls dressed in red, white and blue danced in and out of the flag-waving crowd of family, friends and complete strangers who just wanted to tell the guys (and one gal) thanks for what they did.

Many in the crowd were wearing shirts that said, “If you can read this shirt, thank a teacher, and because it’s in English, thank a WWII vet — before it’s too late.”

The vets were part of an Honor Flight, a nonprofit program operating throughout the country to salute veterans. The program arranges flights for veterans, particularly WWII veterans, to spend the day in Washington visiting the memorials.

Tyson Food’s Bill McKenzie is the state coordinator for the program, which has been active in Arkansas since 2009. He said the country is losing its WWII vets at a rate of almost 100 a day.

“Most living veterans from that war are 85 or older,” he said, “and for many this is their only chance, their last chance to see the memorial dedicated to their service.”

The oldest on this flight was 98.

There was no cost for the veterans with expenses covered by Tyson Foods, the Walmart Foundation and the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives. Most of the veterans had a guardian, who had to pay a nominal fee, which none minded at all. Also on the flight were a doctor and a number of nurses.

Seven local veterans were among the 82 who made the long, but enjoyable, flight. There were Hall of Jacksonville; Vaughn Bennett, Jack Daulong and Jewel Pride, all of Sherwood; John Caldwell and James Woodward of Cabot; and Clinton Sellers of Beebe.

Hall said the trip was excellent. He teared up, adding that the words to describe it were hard to come by.

During the war, Hall’s specialty was chemical warfare. “I was never sent overseas into the war like most of the guys here. My job at the Pine Bluff Arsenal and another arsenal in Maryland was to make the chemical weapons,” he explained.

“Being stateside, I never experienced the welcome-home celebrations. All the celebrating was done when I got out,” he said.

But the only extra excitement on the trip happened to Doc Toney of Little Rock, the only African-American veteran on the trip. The veteran, who will be 89 in June, was in a wheelchair for the trip. The Lincoln Memorial elevator car stopped working while Toney was inside.

“We had two floors to go and we were leaving in 20 minutes,” he quipped.

Memorial employees and Honor Flight chaperones got Toney down the flight of stairs with no problem and time to spare.

Hall’s escort was Jeff Henderson from Dallas. Henderson was introduced to Hall through his godparents a few years ago and the pair became fast friends. “We gave his wife, Doris, the day off,” Henderson quipped.

Talking about Hall, Henderson said, “We are opposites politically. But are together when it comes to veterans.” Both chided each other as to who was the conservative and who was the liberal, even after spending more than 14 hours together Saturday.

Henderson said Hall and a number of area veterans always hang out at Walmart for coffee and story swapping. “You can see them there about any weekday about 3 p.m., and boy, will you hear some stories.”

Hall said one of the unique aspects of the trip was talking to all the veterans. “They are all interesting, and you don’t normally recognize them for who they are. We had a sense of camaraderie on the trip that is unexplainable. It was part of the overall atmosphere.”

The homecoming included members of the numerous veteran motorcycle groups, such as the Patriot Guard, members of VFW Post 1 in Little Rock, the DAV, Post 34 in Newport, people decked out in the colors of the flag and most of the men wearing military caps or hats.

Hall said the homecoming, was even better than the welcome the veterans received earlier Saturday when they arrived in D.C.

“There was a crowd there too, but nothing like this, and the West Point choir was there singing Word War II songs,” Hall said.

All the vets were impressed with their memorial, which wasn’t built until 2004.

After years of discussion and over half a century of waiting, the United States honored the Americans who were in World War II with a memorial that opened to the public on April 29, 2004. It is located at what was once the Rainbow Pool, centered between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

Before the memorial was built, most Americans thought the Iwo Jima memorial was dedicated to all WW II vets, but it wasn’t.

The vets stopped at both and many cried openly, some smiled, and all reflected on their time in a war that claimed about 400,000 Americans.

Hall said seeing both memorials was “beyond belief.”

Clinton Sellers of Beebe, who is affectionately called “Daddy” by his wife Evelena, has not stopped talking about the trip since he’s come back, according to his wife.

Sellers’ daughter, Sharon, was his chaperone on the flight. He said it was great to spend the day with her.

Sellers, who will be 87 on May 30, spent two years in Japan right after Americans dropped the atomic bombs. “As a truck driver for the Army, I saw it all. There was nothing I didn’t see while over there,” he said.

What excited him the most about the trip?

The people, he said. “Everybody was so good to me, and I don’t really know what I did to deserve all that attention. It was just a real treat to see all the people and I’m real proud and inspired by the welcome in D.C. and at home. I hope to do it again,” the veteran said.

Sherwood’s Vaughn Bennett, an 85-year-old Army veteran, said the whole experience was so humbling.

“In Washington and at Little Rock, to be met by all those dignitaries, National Guard units, well-wishers and those fire trucks and the fire department salutes, they treated us like we were kings and queens,” the veteran said.

“I just don’t have the vocabulary, the words, to explain how wonderful the day was,” he said.

Bennett called the World War II Memorial “gorgeous. You just have to see it to believe it. It is something to behold. And then the Iwo Jima monument, wow ... so many things we saw that you never would think about seeing on your own.”

The veteran said he and his companions on the trip didn’t do anything special to receive all the accolades they got Saturday. “We did what we did because we love our country. It’s the greatest one on earth and our freedoms are precious.” Navy vet Ken Theis, 90, of Pine Bluff said the WW II Memorial “certainly did not disappointment me. I was very impressed.” He called the Iwo Jima stop “really inspiring.”

Taking three buses, with a nurse on each, the veterans went first to their memorial, grabbed a box lunch, took a bus tour of the nation’s capital, then stopped at the Lincoln Memorial and the Iwo Jima monument.

Frank Kirkley, 93, of Magnolia, who lost his wife 10 months ago after nearly 66 years of marriage, said the trip was great. “You don’t realize how large our capital is and how much is there,” he said.

W.C. “Dub” Toones, an 89-year-old Army Air Corps veteran from North Little Rock, was on a similar trip last year and was there Saturday night welcoming this group back.

“It’s a trip of a lifetime. The memorial is fantastic, but 75 percent of our World War II vets will never see it,” said the former member of the 493rd Bomb Group.