CLEARWATER — St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport was transformed into a heroes' welcome party Tuesday night as more than 600 people lined the baggage claim area to honor 79 World War II veterans.
The celebration culminated Honor Flight of West Central Florida's 10th trip. The nonprofit organizes daylong treks to Washington, D.C., to give World War II veterans a chance to see monuments and memorials in the nation's capital.
Sarasota's Harlan Twible, who gave the orders to abandon ship during the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945, was the first one off the Allegiant Air flight. Led in by bagpipers and greeted by applause and American flag waving, the veterans capped a memorable day visiting Arlington National Cemetery, the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Lincoln, Korean War and Vietnam War memorials, and the World War II Memorial.
The World War II Memorial, which none of the veterans on the Honor Flight had ever seen, took more than 60 years to come to fruition. It pays homage to the 400,000 Americans who lost their lives in the war.
Allen Duncanson, 87, of Sun City Center didn't let a rainy day, and one that started at 4 a.m., ruin his trip.
"It was great, first class," he said. "I was really impressed with the World War II Memorial. At my age, when both feet hit the ground, it's a good day."
Duncanson is among 28,000 World War II vets living in the Tampa Bay area. More than 700 have seen the memorial in two years since the nonprofit Honor Flight began operating in May 2011. Each charter flight can accommodate up to 80 veterans, who fly for free, along with guardians for each who pay $400 to escort and honor the vets for their service. Each flight needs $25,000 in corporate donations to get off the ground.
Donations from local Brandon area businesses helped cover the cost of this particular flight. Money came from a variety of outlets, including corporations Mosaic and Walmart, local Chick-fil-A owners Tammy and Paul Holmberg, the Osprey Observer and the 6-year-old FishHawk Barbershop.
Tommy Kimes, the barbershop owner and an Air Force veteran, contributed $500 after learning about the Honor Flight through a networking group.
"I have a soft spot in my heart for all veterans," he said.
Other donating businesses and individuals included dentist William Belton, Benjamin Mena, Run for a Cause, Dynamic Painting USA, Kids R Kids Circa FishHawk & Valrico, and Sammy Sullivan Charities.
Veteran Nathaniel Storms of Valrico, Brandon's first honorary mayor in 1959, was on the flight as well. Brandon's 50th honorary mayor, Tammy Holmberg, was the guardian for Storms, the father-in-law of former state Sen. Ronda Storms.
They joined other locals: James Hawthorne, Paul Monnette, Thomas Palmer and Donald Phillips of Sun City Center; John Mayhall of Riverview; and Lester Cash of Valrico.
Cash, 90 and an Army veteran who calls himself a "mean ol' tanker," said this experience was more than he expected.
"It was so wonderful," he said. "This is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful."
Among those who greeted the veterans were Maj. Gen. Karl R. Horst, chief of staff, U.S. Central Command, and Brig. Gen. Sam Mundy, executive officer to the commander, U. S. Central Command, who gave out challenge coins. Veterans also got their pictures taken with bomber girls dressed in vintage garb and received a copy of Jewel of the Mall, a tribute book to the World War II Memorial.
All the pomp was a bit much for Palmer, 88, an Army veteran and self-proclaimed shy person. He said the extravagant welcome home surprised him and made him feel a little uncomfortable.
"I'm not that kind of guy," he said.
About 480 World War II vets are on the waiting list for their opportunity to fly. The next Honor Flight is slated for June 4. Sixty vets have signed up.
Eric Vician can be reached at [email protected]