BY G.B. POINDEXTER, managing editor at the Broken Arrow Ledger
for the Oklahoma Press Association
WASHINGTON D.C. — More than 85 veterans from World War II and the Korean Conflict traveled to Washington, D.C., from the Tulsa International Airport on April 17 as part of the Oklahoma Honor Flights.
The first of four Oklahoma Honor Flights scheduled for 2013 in state, it is part of the national Honor Flights organization that serves 37 states.
"Many of these men and women who attend the Oklahoma Honor Flights have a range of thoughts and emotions," said State Rep. Eric Proctor (D-District 77), Northeast Oklahoma Honor Flights chairman.
Veterans and their Honor Flight Guardians — volunteers who purchase their own passage and are tasked with caring for the needs of each attendee — enjoyed memorial sites for WWII, Korea and Vietnam. The one-day tour also visited Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial.
"This is fantastic," said B.T. McFadden, 91, of Tulsa.
As a fighter, McFadden saw combat in the South Pacific in the U.S. Marine Corps as a tanker. But, what he recalls most vividly is retrieving the dead from beachheads.
"When I drove the amphibs [amphibious troop transport vehicles] to the beachheads, the Navy would stop shelling right before we landed," he said. "After the troops got out, well, we had to take the dead back to the ships. I never will forget that."
Of the many veterans who traveled on the one-day whirlwind trip to historical sites around the District of Columbia, “there are 37 veterans who are or will be 90 this month,” said Michelle Fourrox, Oklahoma Honor Flights committee member.
The night prior to their flight, more than 120 veterans met at the Spirit Bank Event Center in Bixby for a veterans’ reception.
“While they are at the Event Center, Fourrox said, “the veterans and their family and friends will have a chance to see the Traveling Military Museum presented by Keith Myers, enjoy the Patriot Guard riders and be honored during a program in the main auditorium.”
Important to many in the U.S. Military, during the program in which each veteran in attendance was recognized by name, each member also participated in the Challenge Coin and Constitution Exchange.
Challenge coins are usually bronze coins struck with unit identifiers that typically signify unit membership.
“This is a lovely coin,” said Mary Proctor, surrounded by her family and friends.
Proctor, 91, of Tulsa, served for three years beginning in 1943 in the U.S. Navy Women’s Reserve, more commonly known as the WAVES (Woman Accepted into Voluntary Emergency Service).
“We are so proud of mom,” said Carol Peter, Proctor’s daughter who served as her mother’s Oklahoma Honor Flights Guardian on the trip.
Several who traveled on the trip shared stories from their time in combat, including
Harold Fish of Mustang, who was born in 1919.
“I was a gunner in a B-25 bomber,” said Fish, as he sat in a wheelchair and spoke while at the WWII Memorial.
“I never will forget one particular mission we flew.”
Fish, 94, who celebrated his 67th wedding anniversary April 17th, flew a total of 59 combat missions during WWII as a member of the Army Air Corps. The Army Air Corps proceeded what is now the U.S. Air Force, formed in 1941 as its own branch of the U.S. Military.
“We didn’t fly a lot of missions,” he said, “so our crew was the [Captain] pilot, co-pilot, an engineer and only one gunner — me.”
Normally, the entire crew complement for a B-25 includes six, according to USAF records.
As Fish continued to speak, a group of more than 25 people visiting the memorial gathered around him and listened intently.
“The thing I remember the most,” he said, “was the radio traffic.”
The radio traffic of which Fish spoke was between the other bombers in the flight group and their support, fighter aircraft.
Fish said, “I still remember the pilots yelling, ‘drop tanks, drop tanks. I see that one, he’s mine.’”
It was common for aircraft to use auxiliary fuel tanks in order to extend their mission capability for long-range bomber support. The fighters dropped their tanks in most instances to allow for increased maneuverability during air-to-air combat.
“I looked out of my turret,” Fish said, “and I saw the fighter pilots were black.”
Fish at one point was stationed in Italy and similar to many bomber groups there, his group received fighter support from the 99th Fighter Squadron. The 99th, completely comprised of black pilots, are famously known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
After a tiring, but enjoyable day experienced by all on the Oklahoma Honor Flights trip, the chartered aircraft’s arrival back to Tulsa was delayed more than three hours due to tornadic activity in the area.
The weather, however, did not dampen the spirit of the men and women onboard the flight or the several hundred well-wishers who enthusiastically waved flags and cheered at the airport as a home-school band played patriotic songs.
"Our hope with the Honor Flights,” said State Rep. Proctor, “is that the trip provides a time for healing and an opportunity to deliver a thank you, 70 years in the making. We thank all the veterans for their service."
Honor Flights is a national organization operating in 37 states throughout the U.S. dedicated to honoring as many military veterans as their non-profit program can support.
For information on Oklahoma Honor flights log on to OklahomaHonorFlights.org or contact State Rep. Eric Proctor at 918-407-9403.