WASHINGTON — Just a few days ago, U.S. Air Force Capt. E.J. Mason was deployed in Yemen, while his grandfather, James, was preparing to visit the World War II Memorial here.
As the elder Mason toured the memorial on Tuesday as part of the Oklahoma Honor Flights program, he walked right past his grandson, who had seen him and hidden.
“I just walked up on him and surprised him and gave him his picture from his old platoon,” the Air Force captain said.
“I'm so blessed to have a grandfather who taught me the stuff he did and showed me the value of service to our country.”
James Mason, of Spencer, 85, worked at an Army prison for captured soldiers in Bremerhaven, Germany. Standing near the Oklahoma pillar on a cool and cloudy day, Mason said it had never crossed his mind that he might visit the memorial, but his family got him on the Honor Flights list.
E.J. Mason said he had been planning since July to surprise his grandfather at the memorial.
“Then I heard about the government shutdowns and furloughs and all that other stuff so I didn't quite know how it was going to work out,” he said.
It all worked out fine for the 15th Oklahoma Honor Flights trip, which included 83 veterans and their “guardians,” often friends or family who accompany the veterans on a whirlwind tour that begins in Oklahoma early in the morning and ends there late the same night.
On the eighth day of the partial government shutdown, the World War II Memorial is one of the only sites on the National Mall that can be accessed by the public. The National Park Service had tried barricading it last week when the shutdown began, but veterans on an Honor Flight from Mississippi broke through with the help of some congressmen.
Since then, the administration, well aware of the public relations disaster it was courting, has allowed World War II veterans entry to the memorial, though the bathrooms are closed and the fountain isn't operating.
State Rep. Gary Banz, of Midwest City, who helped create the Oklahoma Honor Flights program, said Tuesday that he had received a permit from the park service guaranteeing access to the World War II and Korean memorials on the mall.
The shutdown wasn't an issue at two other stops on the itinerary, Arlington National Cemetery and the Air Force Memorial, he said.
Each trip costs about $100,000 of donated money and requires months of planning.
Banz brought his father, Leonard, of Kansas, on Tuesday. Leonard Banz was one of five brothers who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II; all five were at the World War II memorial opening in May, 2005.
“It was a pretty big deal to have five brothers who survived the war to still be living and able to travel and be here at the national dedication,” Gary Banz said.
Steve Coleman, a Midwest City attorney who also helped organize the Oklahoma chapter of Honor Flights, flew up early with his son on Tuesday to allow room on the chartered plane for the veterans and guardians.
As he waited for the group to arrive, he showed the packet of letters each veteran would receive on the return trip to Oklahoma to remind them of “mail call” during their time in the service. The packet included letters from second-graders at Soldier Creek Elementary School in Midwest City.
“What we have tried to do is expand Oklahoma Honor Flights to include all segments of the population of Oklahoma, but especially the next generation who will be coming up and who will need to know important lessons that we all have benefited from from the greatest generation,” Coleman said.
Three Oklahoma congressmen greeted the veterans at the memorial, including the two freshmen, Reps. Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, and Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville.
Mullin escorted his grandfather here on one of the first Oklahoma Honor Flights in 2010. On Tuesday, he brought his wife, Christie, and sons Andrew and Jim.
Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, who has greeted several of the Oklahoma flights, said this one was “especially significant” because of the attention placed on the memorial since the partial shutdown began.
“They came knowing this is their one shot to get here,” Lankford said of the veterans. “I'm glad they were able to come through. ... All of us will forever say thank you to this great generation.”
I'm so blessed to have a grandfather who taught me the stuff he did and showed me the value of service to our country.”
U.S. Air Force
Shown at right with his grandfather, James Mason