Shelby County veterans visit World War II memorial

On May 7, 104 World War II veterans from central Alabama traveled to the nation’s capital to see for the first time the memorial built in their honor.

The veterans, ranging in age from 82 to 94, were able to make the trip through the Honor Flight Birmingham program, which organizes free, day-long trips for veterans using donated funds.

They spent two hours at the World War II memorial, visited the Iwo Jima memorial and did a driving tour of Washington, D.C.

For the first time, the program chartered its own flight, allowing them to take a group of veterans three times the size of previous trips.

Howard Elliott, a Navy veteran from North Shelby County, was among the veterans on the trip, many of whom would never have been able to visit the memorial on their own, he said.

“It’s a compulsory thing for any veteran that has not done this,” Elliott said. “Regardless of condition, if you are able to breathe and get around at all, go.”

When the veterans’ plane landed in Baltimore, they were welcomed by military personnel from every service lining the concourse and saluting in their honor. They received a similar welcome on their return to Birmingham.

“Everyone that had contact with us had the best, most appreciative respect that one could meet,” Elliott said. “It made me feel like I was somebody, and for a bunch of decrepit-looking, old men that was really something.”

Two women, Pam Nichols and Amy McDonald, founded the program in 2008 and are currently program directors. Since then, Honor Flight Birmingham has organized six flights, allowing 289 veterans to visit the memorial.

Each trip requires considerable coordination, primarily done by volunteers who sort through applications and call both veterans and volunteers, called guardians, chosen for each flight, Nichols said.

For the May 7 flight, 56 guardians accompanied the veterans, performing tasks such as pushing wheelchairs, distributing food and ensuring the safety of each veteran.

“The beauty of this trip is that amongst those guardians they make a donation to cover their own expenses,” she said. “That says a tremendous amount about our community and the younger generation who want to do this just for the honor of going with one of these veterans.”

Shane McGinnis, from Birmingham, volunteered as a guardian for the first time on this flight, which he said was “the most incredible day of my life.”

“These guys are like living history books,” he said. “It’s awe-inspiring that they remember things like they were yesterday.”

When they arrived at the monument, he said many of the veterans began tearing up, overcome by its enormity.

A group of schoolchildren visiting the monument approached the veterans once they realized who they were, bombarding them with questions.

“It was so touching to watch these guys realize that somebody cared about who they were and what they’d done,” McGinnis said. “It was like they were rock stars for the day.”

For information on corporate sponsorships, special donations, veteran applications and guardian applications visit www.honorflightbirmingham.com or call (205) 714-3156.

Honorees for the May 7 flight included:

Fred Spradley, Marines, Alabaster

Charles Cobb, Navy, Alabaster

George Moore, Army, Alabaster

John Self, Army, North Shelby

Joseph Mason, Jr., Navy, Alabaster

Lonnie Adams, Navy, Alabaster

Robert Wesson, Navy, North Shelby

Thomas Morrison, Army, Helena

Tom Wood, Army, North Shelby

Elbert Gibson, Army, North Shelby

Howard Elliott, Navy, North Shelby

John Cole, Navy, Pelham

Nathan Smith, Marines, Columbiana

Thomas Ware, Army, North Shelby

Walter Walker, Marines, Chelsea