By Matt Liebowitz
The soldiers’ return to U.S. soil following the end of World War II has been romanticized in film and photos, most notably in the famous picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square in 1945.
Dave Smith knows that a single photo, however immortalized, does not tell the real story.
“People think of the kiss photographed in New York City, but most WWII veterans came home and went back to work—they didn’t really get any recognition,” said Smith, founder of the San Diego chapter of Honor Flight.
Smith is out to change that, one airline flight at a time. Since he co-founded the local San Diego chapter of the national Honor Flight Network last December, Smith and a team of volunteers have made it possible for 123 veterans from San Diego to fly to the nation’s capital to visit the National WWII Memorial. (While all veterans are eligible for Honor Flight’s service, top priority is given to senior veterans — such as World War II survivors and those veterans who may be ill.)
The visit to Washington D.C., Smith said, goes far beyond merely visiting a historic site. It’s a chance for veterans to reclaim a part of their lives.
“World War II vets are known for not talking about their experiences,” said Smith. He cited the cases of post-traumatic stress disorder many veterans face upon returning home from war, and said, “A lot of these guys have been carrying things. This is a way they can get together and actually talk about some of the things they haven’t been able to talk about.”
The effects are felt long after the visit is over.
Following the last flight, Smith received a letter of thanks from the wife of a WWII veteran; the trip allowed her and her husband to finally share the same bed again after 50 years of sleeping in separate rooms due to his sleeping difficulties brought on by disturbing memories of the war. “The trip allowed some memories to settle,” Smith said.
In a three-day, two-night visit — Honor Flight covers 100 percent of the trip, including hotels and meals — the honored guests also tour the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Iwo Jima Memorials, and they take a guided tour of Washington D.C., including a stop at the famed Ford Theatre.
For each trip, Honor Flight also obtains special permission to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, where, Smith said, sentries do a “hidden salute” to honor the WWII vets in attendance.
“They do a little wiggle of the toe as they turn,” Smith said.
“They only do that when they know World War II vets are there.”
Smith started Honor Flight’s San Diego chapter after accompanying his father, a WWII veteran who participated in the 1944 Battle of Guam. “Just seeing the amount of impact it had” sparked Smith to take action.
That action is crucial now, especially as the number of living WWII veterans continues to dwindle. “We’re losing these guys at a rate of about 1,000 per day. It’s very important to get them back [to the WWII Veterans Memorial],” Smith said.
Honor Flight San Diego plans to double its duty in its second year, sending at least 300 veterans to the D.C. memorials. If it can raise enough money, the group will begin chartering flights to help the roughly 1,200 WWII vets living in Southern California experience what one family member of an Honor Flight guest told Smith was “the best two-and-a-half days” of their life.
The next flight is scheduled for May, and already there are 300 people on the waiting list. With the fundraising effort in full swing, Smith is committed to doing everything he can to get veterans to the memorial that honors their valor, the memorial they, in effect, built.
“Really don’t think I’ve ever done anything more rewarding,” Smith said. “The vets thank me, but I tell them I get more out of this than they do.”
For more information, visit www.Honorflightsandiego.org.