NORMAN — Youth tenderly held the trembling hand of history.
Bayley Allen, a junior at Noble High School, ran her right thumb over the 87-year-old left knuckles of World War II veteran James Brown.
Allen is 16 years old. That's only two years younger than Brown was when he began serving as a U.S. Army soldier in Europe.
“We're the best of friends,” Allen said. Asked how long they'd known each other, “About 20 minutes,” she replied.
The Oklahoma Honor Flights program strives to allow veterans, primarily those of World War II, to see their memorial and other monuments in Washington, D.C. That program took four flights this year. The “Operation 4G” program also took flight this year.
The four Gs stand for “Giving to the Grounded Greatest Generation.”
On Friday, with Veterans Day around the corner, leadership students of Noble High School, including Allen, visited the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs' Veterans Center in Norman for an “Operation 4G” ceremony. There, they were paired with 121 World War II veterans.
That included Brown, who looked at his new friend and said, “I wasn't but a kid when I went to war.”
“I'm just so happy they are still here,” Allen said. “He was 18. I can't imagine me in two years going and doing that. I don't think I could.”
The first Oklahoma Honor Flights trip was taken in May 2010. In all, there have been 15 flights with 1,433 veterans having participated. But not every veteran is physically able to make the trip to the nation's capital to visit the memorial.
“The board of directors recognized that the day is fast approaching when doctor's orders and individual circumstances will prohibit World War II veterans from traveling,” said Gary Banz, executive director of Oklahoma Honor Flights. “However, there will still be World War II veterans who live among us. They, too, should be recognized.”
So while the program's flights continue — as long as there are World War II veterans requesting the flights and funding is available — they have decided to hold special events at each of the seven long-term care Veteran Centers supported by the state of Oklahoma. The state Veterans Affairs Department lists just under 500 World War II veterans living at the centers in Lawton, Norman, Claremore, Clinton, Sulphur, Ardmore and Talihina, Banz said.
The first 4G ceremony was held at Lawton in August, honoring 78 World War II veterans, he said.
The second was Friday at Norman. Only three in attendance had been on an Oklahoma Honor Flights trip.
U.S. Navy veteran Allen Vann, 96, was among the majority who hadn't.
Pleasure and privilege
Vann was a chief torpedoman's mate on a submarine where at times they would try to blend in with the enemy's ships, keeping enough distance not to be noticed.
Before Friday's ceremony, Vann recalled the day a guy on the submarine asked him, “You don't expect to go home, do you?”
“I said, ‘Well, either I'm going back home to Oklahoma or I'm going home up there,'” Vann said as he pointed up. “The reason I'm living is that I didn't have any sense. I didn't know any better.
“I count it as a pleasure and a privilege to have served. I was honored that I could do what I did.”
The name of each of the men and women at Friday's ceremony was read aloud. Several served in more than one war. As some heard their name, they raised their hand. A few answered, “Here.” Veterans were given items of appreciation, including an Oklahoma Honor Flights cap, a lap blanket and a book, “World War II Memorial: Jewel of the Mall.” And a packet of letters written by students from the Oklahoma City metro area was placed in the veterans' rooms.
At Oklahoma Honor Flights ceremonies the night before a trip, Banz uses the exchange zone in a relay race as an example of generations of the past placing the responsibility of defending this nation in the hands of those much younger.
He did so at the 4G ceremony, as well.
“For our nation to remain strong, we must successfully transfer from one generation to the next, the values, the traditions and the principles upon which our way of life is based,” Banz said.
The veterans were given a pocket-size copy of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights that they took the oath to “preserve, protect and defend.”
The young people were given an Oklahoma Honor Flights commemorative coin for the “heroes” next to them. The students and the veterans were asked to face each other and exchange these items.
Allen took the commemorative coin and softly placed it in Brown's shaking right hand.
“This is for you,” she said to her new friend.