They didn’t hesitate when duty called, but more than 60 years later are still reluctant to be considered the heroes they are.
The humbleness of World War II veterans may have something to do with the fact that their memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. was one of the last built, speculates Maj. Peter J. Glennon, one of the founders of Honor Flight Rochester Inc., the regional hub of the national organization devoted to taking members of the greatest generation to see their World War II Memorial.
“I think all veterans should be recognized for their sacrifice and service to their country,” Glennon said. “We need to be thankful for these people and their efforts. For World War II veterans, there’s no question they saved the world, literally.”
The goal, Glennon said, is to reach out to all of the more than 4,000 World War II veterans that the U.S. Census indicates live in the Greater Rochester area. Honor Flight is quickly trying to identify the remaining veterans, all age 82 and older, because nationally, World War II veterans are dying at the rate of about 900 a day, according to the national Honor Flight Network (www.honorflight.org).
“It’s a race against the clock,” said Glennon who is working with Rochester City Council President Lovely A. Warren and others in brainstorming ways to heighten awareness of the program, particularly in minority communities.
“It’s really an amazing accomplishment what these people did,” he said. “We will never have another war of that capacity. I know why they’re called the greatest generation. They could have come home and rested on their laurels. Instead, they came back and built greater opportunities for everybody. This recognition has been a long time coming.”
The memorial honors the 16 million Americans who served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II, the more than 400,000 who made the “ultimate sacrifice” and the millions who supported the war effort from home.
It opened in 2004, not long after which Glennon read about how Earl Morse, a retired Air Force captain and physician’s assistant in Ohio, had started flying veterans to see the memorial. Morse, in talking to hundreds of World War II patients, realized none had gone and he got the idea of arranging free trips for them. His group of pilots and a similar group in North Carolina later merged to form The Honor Flight Network.
“I thought to myself that’s awesome,” said Glennon, deputy commander for the Air National Guard’s 107th Logistics Readiness Squadron in Niagara Falls. “That’s really great and if I ever have the time to help World War II veterans, I’ll do it.”
True to his word, Glennon, who, like Morse, holds a private pilot’s license, took off with the idea. He and six others started planning in 2007 and sponsored their first flight in 2008. The other co-founders are Edwin “Woody” Mench of Pittsford; Vince Hope, Brighton; Kim and Jeff Gould, Webster; and Kathleen and Pat Wahl, Geneseo.
At the time, Glennon was at Nixon Peabody LLP which he said was very supportive, particularly Scott M. Turner, a fellow veteran, and Anita L. Pelletier.
The trips are jammed packed with activities, most of which are complete surprises to the veterans who are grateful just to see the memorial.
Glennon said veterans and their escorts, usually a family member, arrive at the Greater Rochester International Airport around 4 a.m. on a Saturday. Each is greeted, given and wheelchair and served breakfast in a large room where they begin socializing while meeting the flight crew.
The first surprise is a stack of letters from elementary school children who were given the names of veterans and have written personalized thank-you notes which are read on the flight to Baltimore Washington International Airport where the veterans are greeted by hundreds, if not thousands, of supporters, including school children and Annapolis cadets from the U.S. Naval Academy, waving flags and cheering.
“That can be a touching moment,” Glennon said.
A comfortable tour bus takes them to the Capitol where they tour all of the war memorials and watch the Changing of the Guard ritual at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
Glennon noted the Army soldiers guarding the tomb are not allowed to acknowledge visitors but, out of respect for the aged veterans, “ever so slightly drag their feet, making a scraping sound” in tribute.
He said a lot of people know when the Honor Flights, from all over the country, are due to arrive and it is not uncommon to see prominent veterans such as former Sen. Bob Dole, who also served in World War II, or Colin Powell, a retired four-star general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“When we’re down there, these guys stand out,” Glennon said. “These guys are treated like celebrities and they’re surprised by it.”
He said after the tour of the memorials, the veterans, thinking the trip is over, are surprised with a huge banquet dinner in Baltimore where they spend the night at a hotel before returning to Rochester on Sunday morning.
The surprises are not over, though, as the veterans are greeted back home at the airport by a military Color Guard and hundreds of family members and community folks. Glennon said there are bagpipes, marching bands, Vietnam veterans and members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and local Girl and Boy Scouts.
“This is the welcome home parade these people never got,” Glennon said, adding that the ticker-tape parades people see on television did not happen for the majority of returning veterans who simply went back to their hometowns.
The trip is still not over. The veterans are treated to lunch at the airport, along with various presentations. Frequent speakers include Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks and Rochester Mayor Thomas S. Richards. Glennon said everybody is very supportive, especially the airport staff and county government who help Honor Flight in arranging the trips and receptions.
The Rochester hub of the national Honor Flight Network has flown nearly 1,200 veterans on more than two dozen missions since it got up and running in October 2008 with six veterans on its first flight.
“Success breeds success,” Glennon said. “It grew from there. I’m very proud of how well we run our organization. One thing we pride ourselves in is the best possible customer service. We want to provide this incredible experience as a way to say thank you. I never tire of saying thank you to World War II veterans. Each one is individual and unique. Every one of their stories is inspirational.”
Honor Flight Rochester averages five or six trips a year at a cost of about $35,000 each. Veterans are not charged anything, but their escorts pay their own way. Additional support comes through private donations and fundraising events, including an annual telethon.
Donations are always accepted. More information and applications are available on the website (http://honorflightrochester.org) or by calling (585) 210-2115. Glennon may also be contacted at (585) 319-5879 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The local hub also has a speakers bureau available for Honor Flight presentations to area organizations.
“Once we have flown all of the World War II veterans we can identify, we would like to turn to fly Korean veterans,” said Glennon. “They are men and women of the forgotten war.”
Glennon, whose father was a Korean War veteran, was brought up in a culture of respect and admiration for the military. He has been in the military for almost 22 years, joining during Desert Storm. He transitioned to weekend guard duty after 10 years.
Glennon is a graduate of Albany Law School and a member of the Monroe County and New York State bar associations, serving by presidential appointment, on NYSBA’s Special Committee on Veterans Affairs.
He and his wife, Kimberly A. Glennon, who is also an attorney, live in Pittsford with their three young children.
See also: www.nps.gov/wwii and www.va.gov.
Photos by Kris Dreessen