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TRIP OF A LIFETIME SENDS VETS SOARING

Seventy-six World War II veterans will visit memorials in D.C. for free.

It seemed a noble cause: Send veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit war memorials they otherwise may never see.

Christine Jacobs thought it was perfect. As chief executive officer of an Atlanta firm that makes devices to treat prostate cancer, Jacobs agreed to partner with Honor Flight, the nonprofit that arranges the Washington trips.

The deal was already done when it occurred to Jacobs: Had her own father, a World War II vet who lives in St. Petersburg, ever been to Washington?

Ray Jacobs, 85, had not. Would he like to go? Sure, he told his daughter, on one condition.

"I might need a wheelchair."

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This morning, 76 World War II veterans from Florida will board a plane at Tampa International Airport and fly to Washington. They'll visit the National World War II Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial and Arlington Cemetery before flying back tonight.

For many of the men, it will be their first time visiting their country's capital and seeing the memorials that honor them. It might also be their last. Between 1,000 and 1,500 veterans who served in World War II - which lasted from 1939 to 1945 - die every day.

As the generation goes, so does the living history. Serving in World War II changed the lives of millions of men and women who are now in their 80s and 90s.

Some were sent to battle in Europe or Japan. Many lost best friends, brothers, bunkmates and classmates. Some never sent foot on enemy soil, serving instead in noncombat jobs like mechanical work or teaching.

No matter what their role, the veterans left a mark that will remain well after they're gone.

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Ray Jacobs was born and raised in German Village, a neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. The youngest of four sons, Jacobs was an ROTC member when he was drafted at age 19.

At 6 feet 4, he served in the Army infantry from 1943 to 1946, training Japanese-American troops at Camp Blanding in Florida. He also was sent briefly to Korea on a peaceful mission to confiscate property from Japanese people living there.

He later graduated from Ohio State University, where he fell in love. He and his wife, Kate, raised nine children, the oldest being Christine. He worked for construction and kitchen equipment supply companies.

After the kids graduated from college and started families of their own, he and Kate retired to Florida. They live in a condo overlooking Boca Ciega Bay, and they played a lot of golf before Ray's knees and shoulder went bad.

Asked to recall his service, Jacobs said the war changed him. It taught him pride and empathy. He was a part of something historic.

Now, he's overjoyed to be flying with 75 fellow men - men just like him - to be honored for it. He's got a list of fellow soldiers' names and old friends, and he hopes to find their names in Washington.

But he struggled to put his own war experiences into words.

"It's been a while since anyone's asked me these kinds of questions," he said.

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Christine Jacobs knows she will get emotional seeing her father among the men on this flight. She never really saw him as a war hero, or even a veteran. He never talked about it much - he was too busy being a dad.

Ray Jacobs plans to wear simple civilian clothes. He doesn't have a uniform, and his medals have all been tucked in drawers somewhere.

"I'm sure some of the boys will be wearing medals and all that," Jacobs said. "It's a true honor flight."

Christine Jacobs, CEO of Theragenics, will be one of 35 guardians traveling with the men. She might be more excited than her father. And he's pretty excited. Neither knows what to expect.

But Becky Peterson, a spokeswoman for Honor Flight and Theragenics, has heard from several of the 400 veterans making the trip this year.

She hears one comment most: "You made me remember things I had forgotten."

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

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