Bill Osterman, one of 26 World War II veterans who flew to Washington, D.C., over the weekend, got a welcome-home celebration at the Spokane International Airport that brought tears to his eyes.
The 95-year-old Post Falls resident doesn’t recall what kind of welcome he got after being discharged from the Army in 1945, more than 65 years ago. The Sunday afternoon event, however, was loud and lively, with more than 300 people on hand as the vets walked or were rolled down the gate ramp in wheelchairs, a high school band playing in the background.
It was the fifth trip to Washington, D.C., arranged this year by Inland Northwest Honor Flight, a chapter of the national group that pays tribute to World War II veterans by sending them to the nation’s capital to see the memorials dedicated to them.
Osterman, a pilot and a B-24 bombardier during the war, said he thought the hoopla was fine, but just getting home after a busy weekend was excitement enough.
The group left Spokane on Friday, arrived in D.C. at midnight and rushed through the capital visiting military memorials Saturday, and returned Sunday.
For many, including Spokane veteran Earl Reeves, a high point was seeing the massive U.S. Marine Corps Memorial.
“That statue is large – it’s bigger than life,” said Reeves, who served in the Army in India, where his unit provided support for pilots flying supplies into China.
Spokane resident Bob Wood, 85, served in the Army in the Philippines. The Honor Flight was his first commercial airline flight. “The (Southwest Airlines) pilot had me come into the cabin. He told me he’d try to make a good landing because I was on the plane,” he said.
Also on board the flight was Norman Hudnall, an 84-year-old Navy veteran and Electric City, Wash., resident.
“I’ve been looking forward to this trip for a year,” Hudnall said. “It was great. It was really exciting to go back there and see the monuments and meet Bob Dole.”
Dole, himself a wounded World War II vet, often greets visiting groups of Honor Flight participants.
The weekend’s trip was the fifth Honor Flight sent from Spokane this year, with the vets’ tickets and hotel lodging covered by contributions from individuals and businesses. Those trips sent about 180 vets in 2011, said Tony Lamanna, the Inland Northwest chapter manager.
Another 196 vets from this area are on the Honor Flight waiting list, he said, adding, “We hope we can reload with enough funds to keep sending groups in 2012.”
The next flight won’t happen until April.
“Every time we do this trip and the media cover it, we get more people who sign up,” Lamanna said. “But the trouble is the vets are dying. We’ve lost 18 so far that we couldn’t send on the trip.”
Lamanna said it costs about $800 to cover the plane ticket and lodging for each Honor Flight vet. A number of area businesses, including Rosauers grocery stores, run annual fundraisers to contribute to the nonprofit.
Southwest Airlines also donates tickets to Honor Flight chapters. Lamanna said more than 200 Southwest tickets have been provided to the Inland Northwest chapter since the Spokane group began sending groups in 2009.