Flight of honor and memory

The sad march goes on.

World War II veterans once numbered 16 million, but the ranks are thinning at the rate of about 1,200 a day.

Many never got the chance to visit the National World War II Memorial that opened in Washington back in 2004. Among them was my father, who served in France and Germany during 1944-45.

The veterans who are still with us are in their 80s and 90s, and most don't get around as well as they once did.

A trip to Washington may be practical for some, but for others it's just an enticing dream.

Until now. A dream trip to Washington is in the works for some Lincoln County World War II veterans.

Actually, it's a possibility for veterans throughout Western North Carolina.

The Rotary Club of Lincolnton and the Lincolnton Sunrise Rotary Club are taking part in Rotary District 7670's Honor Air program that will fly veterans to the see the war memorial on Nov. 1.

Eight clubs will send 100 veterans to Washington on the one-day trip. The group will be accompanied by 33 volunteer “guardians,” a doctor, two paramedics, three team leaders and a flight leader.

Lincoln County's allocation is 15 veterans and five guardians. The two local clubs are trying to raise $10,000 not only to pay for this trip, but start a local fund to send more Lincoln County veterans to see the WWII monument in the spring of 2009.

Bo King, chairman of the Rotary Honor Air program, told me the challenge for the local clubs is getting the word out.

“There's not a comprehensive list to date for the names of World War II veterans in the county,” he said.

When we talked, only five had filled out trip questionnaires and applications.

But I knew that would change as the news got out. For veterans who were able, this was a chance they couldn't pass up.

The best trips have purpose beyond a good time.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. But a journey with a theme you're passionate about enriches the pleasure.

Eighty-nine-year-old Harvey Jonas Jr.'s granddaughter, Lincolnton Rotary club member Rebecca Pomeroy, told him about the Washington trip.

He'd been wanting to visit the WWII memorial since it went up on the National Mall.

In fact, he'd finally got around to booking a three-day group tour of Washington and was set to leave in October with his wife, Celeste. But Jonas changed plans when he heard about the Honor Air trip.

“This one is special,” he said. “To be there with all those veterans – it's a great idea.”

Jonas said he takes a bunch of pills and occasionally uses a cane but gets around pretty good. He and his wife live in an independent living center near Newton. A semi-retired lawyer, he drives back once a week to Lincolnton to check on things at the Jonas Law Firm. He had a long and distinguished legal career, going to work there in 1952 with his cousin, Charles Raper Jonas, who was first elected to the U.S. House that year.

Harvey Jonas told me World War II was “the greatest experience of my life.”

Going to Washington will bring the story full circle for him. On Dec. 7, 1941, Jonas was a law student studying in the library at UNC Chapel Hill when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Five of us commandeered a car and took off for Washington,” he said. “We got there in time to hear the declaration of war.”

Jonas and his friends stood with a crowd outside the U.S. Capitol and listened to Franklin Roosevelt's famous “day of infamy” speech over loudspeakers.

“It was very moving,” Jonas said.

That was the prelude. The journey began when he joined the Navy.

Jonas would work in convoy control and communication operations in Key West, where German submarines lurked in the nearby waters.

His good friend, a British commander, led a convoy of ships from Key West across the Caribbean toward South America. It ran into enemy fire. The friend's ship took a hit and searchers never found a trace, Jonas said.

His World War II memories are like snapshots neatly pressed into a scrapbook. That's the way it's been with most of veterans I've interviewed from that era. Time erased a lot. But the greatest experience in their lives was cast in stone.

The Washington-bound travelers will leave Asheville on Nov. 1 aboard a chartered US Airways 737.

The journey will have great meaning for them and their families. I hope the day spins like clockwork.