Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

May 26, 2014

Vets tour nation’s capital with Honor Flight

WASHINGTON, D.C. — While many days in the course of a lifetime are not extraordinary, a few exceptions will stay vivid in our memories forever.

For the 24 veterans aboard this Honor Flight, May 21 will be one of the exceptional days.

These men and women, veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, were invited, free of charge, to tour the U.S. Capitol, as well as visit the World War II, Korean and Vietnam memorials in Washington, D.C.

“I’ve had my picture taken more today than in my entire life,” said a very humbled Vietnam veteran from Oceana, Ronald “Hoover” Altizer.

He describes himself as a proud veteran, although when he received his draft letter, he admitted it was one of the most disappointing days of his life.

Altizer, 64, served from June 3, 1969, to Nov. 17, 1970, with a rank of SP-5 as a combat engineer, mechanic and heavy equipment operator in Vietnam.

Even though he was happy to be finished six months earlier than planned, he was nervous about his return home.

“When we came back stateside, I wasn’t really thrilled to come because we knew what to expect out of the protesters.”

He remained an unthanked hero for many, many years, but he was met Wednesday with applause, “thank yous” and tokens of appreciation for his service.

“Here we are standing in 2014 in Washington, D.C., by the monuments, and people everywhere are wanting pictures and thanking us. It’s kind of belated, but a very thankful day, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

•••

The majority of the Honor Flight were Vietnam veterans, many of whom had never traveled to D.C., much less had a chance to visit the memorials.

A 63-year-old Bluefield man had his chance to pay his respects to all of his fallen comrades at the Vietnam Memorial.

“I spent two years in the Marine Corps in Vietnam,” Donald Roy “Don” Dinger said. “I grew up shooting, so I was selected as one of the machine gunners.”

As he stood in front of “The Three Soldiers” bronze statue, he said, “See that gun slung around his shoulder? That’s the kind of gun I carried.”

With a capacity to fire 550 rounds per minute, and weighing in at nearly 19 pounds unloaded, his military-issued weapon was an M60 machine gun.

On his walk to the Memorial Wall with the names of servicemen killed in action or missing in action, he was greeted over and over by passers-by, thanking him for his service.

“It’s awesome,” he said with a smile. “I never expected to be thanked by so many people.”

•••

The veterans were met with wild applause, both before their tour of the Capitol and before their tour of the World War II memorial.

Fifth-grade students from Jones Middle School in Columbus, Ohio, lined the walkways of the memorial, prepared to deliver a construction paper poppy to each veteran.

The poppies, their teacher told them, were a symbolic gesture, as the flower is one of the only plants that grew on the barren battlefields of Europe after World War I.

Hands were shaken and flowers were distributed, leaving a smile on every single one of the veterans’ faces.

Veterans Helen “Connie” Wheby and her husband Joseph “Joe” Frank Wheby were fan favorites among the youngsters.

“There have been so many kids coming up to hug me. I’m all for it!” Connie said with a mile-wide smile.

She joined the Navy in 1952 in Trinidad, Colo., and Joe joined the Navy in 1943 in Princeton, where the two reside today.

“We were married in the service. He met me the day after Valentine’s Day so he wouldn’t have to buy me flowers,” Connie poked.

They were both glad to be taking the trip together, as it was the first time for the both of them to see the memorials.

The Whebys have four children together, two girls and two boys, and they will be celebrating their 61st wedding anniversary June 7.

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Although his wife passed away five years ago, World War II veteran Bernard Charles knew she was with him in spirit.

Charles, 87, of Princeton, proudly displayed a black-and-white photograph of himself and his wife from when they first began dating.

The young couple looked incredibly happy and in love, and Charles said now she’s his angel in heaven.

“We were married for 64 years, four months and 10 days.”

He certainly didn’t spend the trip alone, though; Charles was quick to make friends everywhere.

“People have been coming up to me all day, shaking my hand, thanking me for my service.”

•••

Charles was only one of five World War II veterans aboard the Honor Flight, along with Wheby, Luther “Wick” Wickline, Lee Anderson Tynes and Melvin “Mel” Grubb.

Grubb, a well-known photographer in Bluefield, had been invited on the trip several times, but finally decided to give it a try.

He brought his camera along for the journey, snapping photos of all the rooms during the Capitol tour, his fellow veterans and other photo-worthy moments.

Although Grubb wasn’t accustomed to being on the other side of the camera, he soon became the rock star of the trip, with countless men, women, boys and girls of all backgrounds approaching him for photos, handshakes, hugs and “thank yous.”

The 89-year-old veteran is known for his aerial photography aboard his personal airplane, a Piper Super Cub.

He’s been taking photos and flying airplanes for well over 60 years, ever since the end of World War II.

His aerial photographs are used in a variety of ways, including art, real estate purposes and news coverage of events, such as train wrecks.

The professional camera he carried around with him seemed more of an extension of his body than an accessory — “It’s in your blood.”

“I’ve lived a great life and seen so many things,” Grubb said. “I’ve been blessed.”

Grubb still flies and takes photos from miles above the clouds, which he said is as relaxing as sitting in a rocking chair.

•••

Most of the veterans aren’t still flying planes, but these men and women, even the ones who needed a bit of assistance via wheelchair from time to time, are far from sedentary.

Two Ritchie County Korean War veterans, Ralph Six and Dale Keith, proudly wore their VFW apparel and talked of the many activities they frequent with their local post.

“We attend a lot of veterans’ funerals, giving them a 21-gun salute,” the 81-year-old Keith said.

One woman once asked him how much the VFW charges for military graveside rites, and Keith was happy to tell her the services are free of charge.

“She was so thankful that she insisted on giving the VFW a donation after that.”

Both Keith and Six, 84, live in Harrisville, and on Memorial Day weekend, they place flags on veterans’ graves.

In one cemetery in their county, they said, over 600 veterans are buried there.

They also visit local middle schoolers to talk about the importance of the American flag.

“If someone doesn’t teach this stuff and keep it going, it’ll be lost.”

Keith was especially excited for the Honor Flight because although he’s been to D.C. on several occasions, he never had the opportunity to visit the memorials.

Six, however, was actually in D.C. for the dedication of the Korean War Memorial when Bill Clinton was president.

Keith has another exciting opportunity coming up — his son-in-law will soon drive him to Louisville, Ky., for a reunion with the 92nd AFA (Armored Field Artillery) members, who called themselves the “Red Devils.”

He only stayed in touch with a couple fellow soldiers from the war, but one of his buddies from Iowa promised him, “If we make it out of here, I’m coming to West Virginia to see you.”

Sure enough, many years later, a strange car was parked in Keith’s driveway when he came home from work, with his friend waiting for him inside.

“It’s a part of your life you never forget,” Six added.

•••

One of the two female veterans on the Honor Flight, Vonda Butcher, also said her service is something she’ll never forget.

Butcher, a Vietnam veteran from Charleston, said D.C. was the first city she flew into after being sworn into the military.

She was excited, but also nervous to see the Vietnam Memorial, as she was looking for Robert Barnett’s name on the Memorial Wall.

Barnett was a man she served with, but she was never sure where he wound up. Later that day, she said she was relieved when his name was nowhere to be found on the monument.

Butcher served on a flight crew, which was particularly exciting for her because the game plan could change from one minute to the next.

She spent four years in the military and she said she learned a lot.

“It’s great that the government trusts you when you’re 18. You feel like you can conquer anything at that age.”

Females are still the minority in the military, but nothing like they were back in the ’60s — Butcher was in a squadron with only three women, and during bootcamp, she was one of 80 women out of a group of 5,000 men.

“I fought a war in a dress suit, skirt, tie, hat, high heels, purse and gloves. That was in 1967. We were trained to act like a lady because we were representing the United States.”

She laughed, recalling the fact that the women had to keep a close eye on their clothes during laundry day, as their undergarments had a habit of disappearing.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

•••

“I could not be more honored to spend the next 24 hours with you,” Dreama Denver said to members of the third “Always Free Honor Flight” before leaving Princeton late Tuesday night.

Denver, a philanthropist, owner/operator of Little Buddy Radio in Princeton and wife of the late Bob Denver of “Gilligan’s Island” fame, sponsors the “Always Free Honor Flight” through her nonprofit organization, the Denver Foundation.

The bus trip to D.C. is the only organized, all-expenses-paid venture serving West Virginia veterans.

Veterans of World War II and the Korean War are given chronological preference in securing reservations, but veterans of any war may apply.

Denver said she got the idea from Little Buddy co-host Charlie Thomas, who told her about the Honor Flight program he was affiliated with in Missouri.

After finding out that West Virginia has more veterans per capita than any other state, Denver knew she had to find a way for these veterans to see their memorials.

Denver and her small staff prepare for the journey months in advance, including a meet-and-greet with Sen. Joe Manchin and U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, followed by tours of the World War II, Korean and Vietnam memorials.

Even veterans who aren’t in the best of health are invited for the trip, as long as they can ride in a wheelchair.

Members of the junior ROTC join the Honor Flight, offering a wheelchair ride to any veteran in need.

Meals for the veterans are paid for by the Denver Foundation and discounts are available at the Country Inn and Suites in Princeton for families traveling longer distances to meet up with the Honor Flight.

The trip takes almost exactly 24 hours, but the veterans and all who accompany them find it very worth their while.

Even escorts find the trip incredibly rewarding.

Marie Blackwell, widow of Vietnam veteran David Blackwell, has accompanied the veterans twice as an escort.

She always brings flowers for her husband and a man named Patrick who pushed her husband into a foxhole and saved his life.

“It’s so great to hear the stories and share them.”

For applications for the next Honor Flight, call 304-425-8660 or 304-320-6032.

Donations may be made online at bobdenver.com or mailed to the Denver Foundation: Always Free Honor Flight, P.O. Box 931, Princeton, WV 24740.

— E-mail: wholdren@register-herald.com

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