WASHINGTON — “Now I know what royalty feels like,'' Charles Austin, of Norman, said as he walked along the granite plaza of the National World War II Memorial last week.
The Greatest Generation isn't used to being pampered.
But Austin, 88, felt that way on Wednesday, courtesy of the Oklahoma hub of Honor Flights, a non-profit organization formed to show gratitude to the men and women who served the U.S. military during World War II by taking them, all expenses paid, to Washington to see their memorial and some other sights.
“It's an amazing trip,'' said Austin, who was one of 103 Oklahoma veterans on the fifth Honor Flights trip from the state.
Before the Oklahomans arrived, Honor Flight contingents from Wyoming, Missouri and Tennessee walked the vast memorial as drizzle turned into rain. A supply of wheelchairs was stowed on each bus. Each group had its own hats and T-shirts — Ozarks Honor Flight, Music City Honor Flight, Oklahoma Honor Flights.
Some of the veterans were greeted by family members, some from the Washington area and some from farther away. Roger Deapen, of Harrah, toured the memorial with his son, who had come from Los Angeles.
As the veterans walked to the memorial's entrance, six members of the U.S. Air Force saluted, while on-lookers clapped and expressed gratitude for the veterans' sacrifices.
“I've never experienced anything like this,'' said Kelly Kappel, of Clinton. “They have got this thing so organized. They really did a good job.”
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, was there to greet the veterans from his state. U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., was there for his.
U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, stood in the plaza of the memorial talking to the Oklahoma veterans and posing for pictures near the Oklahoma pillar.
“I love seeing them step off the buses and seeing their excitement when they walk into the memorial for the first time,'' Lankford said. “ One of the very first guys caught me and said, ‘It's so different being here than it was seeing it in pictures.'
“It's an honor to see them and be able to thank them personally.”
They were just boys when they left for the war and many had never been far from home. Kappel was 19, “just a redneck farm kid,” when he left for the Philippines; Joseph Williams, of Del City, said he joined the Army in 1944, just out of high school. Austin was among the older ones — he turned 21 on his way to the South Pacific.
And they had vastly different tasks: Robert Paul Williams, of Yukon, was a rear gunner on a B-24 bomber during the daring raids on the Nazis' oilfields in Romania; Austin typed up daily casualty reports in the Philippines for the 32nd Infantry Division; Billy Joe Garner, of Durant, was a cryptographer for a B-26 bomber group in England and France; Deapen was an x-ray technician at a large training base in Idaho.
But they were bound by their common mission, and they were finally honored for that with a national memorial here in 2004. And the organizers of Honor Flight and the donors to the program are trying to get as many as possible to see it.
“Everything has been well planned, ideally put together,'' Joseph Williams said. “I couldn't ask for a better trip.”