Joseph Beauchamp of St. Petersburg, now 85, served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, taking part in eight island invasions, the last being Okinawa. He was on the way back from leave in 1945 when President Harry Truman dropped the bomb.
Last April, Beauchamp joined other veterans in an "Honor Flight," a national program that started in 2005 and has spread across the country. The program flies vets to Washington, D.C., for free to see the World War II Memorial and other important monuments and sights.
"It was absolutely a tear-jerker, absolutely wonderful," he says. "Best reception I ever had anywhere."
Frank Mazzarisi, 93, who also lives in St. Petersburg, was in Army artillery special forces at the Battle of the Bulge — where he lost both legs below the knee. It took him 15 months to get out of the hospital.
Mazzarisi, too, has good memories of the Honor Flight he took last year out of Texas. Besides the World War II memorial, his group visited the monuments for Vietnam and Korea, the latter of which especially impressed him with its realistic statues of everyday soldiers doing their duty.
"Well worth seeing," the old Army vet says.
The Honor Flight Network began in Springfield, Ohio, spread to North Carolina, and has since created chapters around the nation. Now Tampa Bay is getting its own, so vets don't have to travel as far to find a flight.
Through donations and volunteers, Honor Flight provides private, charter or scheduled airline service for groups of vets to take a day trip to Washington. Everything is arranged for them — they arrive at the airport, board a bus and embark on a schedule that typically includes Arlington National Cemetery, the war memorials and other monuments. In the evening, they fly home.
Vets are accompanied and assisted by volunteer guardians to help them, especially those who use wheelchairs, oxygen, or have other disabilities. Southwest Airlines is the official airline of Honor Flight; former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, a wounded war veteran, has lent his name to the cause.
There are about 2 million living World War II vets, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, but a commonly accepted estimate is that this generation is dying off at the rate of 1,000 a day.
Therefore, the Honor Flight Network has a grim but perfectly understandable policy: Priority goes to the terminally ill. Consideration is given to terminally ill Korean War and Vietnam veterans too.
Fred Olson, a retired Army colonel who served two tours in Vietnam, is the leader of the new Tampa Bay chapter of the Honor Flight Network, but he has a lot of help. He decided our area needed its own chapter after taking one of the trips last year.
The chapter, which hopes to have its first flight this spring, will hold a fundraiser from 3 to 10 p.m. Saturday at Cody's Original Roadhouse, 4360 Park St. N, St. Petersburg (owners Richard and Vicki Franklin are huge supporters, and she sits on the board). Half the proceeds of each $10 plate goes to the chapter.
For more information about the national network, go to www.honorflight.org (be sure to use ".org" and not ".com").
The West Central Florida chapter's web site is www.honorflightwcf.org. You can call (727) 498-6079 or e-mail [email protected]
There's still time for the rest of us to say thank you.