Probably every U.S. military veteran fortunate enough to participate in an “Honor Flight” trip to Washington, D.C., returns with feelings of satisfaction, fulfillment, gratitude and relief.
Certainly that’s the case with Houston resident Howard Hughes, who was part of an Honor Flight of the Ozarks outing on Tuesday, Nov. 1.
Based in Springfield, Ohio, the non-profit Honor Flight Inc. is “dedicated to providing veterans with honor and closure” and operates 132 “hubs” around the U.S., one of which is Springfield, Mo. The organization’s mission is to honor America’s veterans for their sacrifices and transport them to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at various memorial sites (including the World War II Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Marine Corps Memorial and Arlington Cemetery).
After applying and being accepted, each participating veteran travels for free, accompanied by “guardians” and other volunteers who pay their way to go. It’s an arduous, fast-paced excursion, in which Hughes and four busloads of participants left Springfield-Branson National Airport, landed in Washington, D.C., made the circuit and returned home in the space of a day.
“I was 15 minutes short of being awake for 24 hours straight,” he said. “It was tiring, but it was worth it.”
YOUNG AND NEAR THE BATTLE
As a teenager living with his parents in Kenosha, Wis., Hughes enlisted in the Air Force in 1966. As a 20-year-old, he was deployed during the Vietnam War in July of 1968 for a year-long stint at an air base in Ubon, Thailand, about 35 miles from both Cambodia and Laos, where U.S. operations were going strong. He was technically a jet engine mechanic, but spent almost all of his time working the “flight line,” where planes were parked.
“I don’t think I worked on a single jet engine,” Hughes said, “but apparently they were okay with me doing that because nobody said anything.”
The line consisted of three squadrons of F-4s, a group of C-130 transport units, several C-130 gunships and even an Australian squadron of F-100s. Hughes said the Aussies were interesting characters whose presence provided plenty of eventful moments.
“They wouldn’t fly if it was raining, and of course it was often raining,” he said. “They were crazy; they would come over and steal our airplanes and Jeeps and paint kangaroos all over them.”
As fate (and luck) would have it, Hughes never saw combat.
“But I saw the results of it,” he said. “One F-4 aircraft came back and there was nothing but blood inside the airplane. The pilot had wiped a little spot in the windshield so he could see.
“Something had come up through the bottom of the airplane and hit the guy in the back seat and he just exploded back there.”
Like most war veterans, Hughes prefers not to dwell on the gruesome memories, but they’re indelibly etched in the back of his mind.
“There were many incidences like that,” he said, “and they might not hit you at that time because in the moment there’s adrenaline. But it catches up with you later and it affects what happens to you with the rest of your life.”
Hughes was discharged in 1970, after basically following his father’s footsteps. During World War II, his dad was a tail gunner in a B-29, flying out of Tinian Island in the South Pacific.
“He flew many missions and told me a lot of stories about his experiences,” Hughes said.
One of those missions was flying escort for the B-29 named “Bock’s Car” as it was on its way to dropping the “Fat Man” atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945.
“I’m proud of my dad for his military service and I’m proud of everyone who does for their country what has to be done,” Hughes said.
TOUCHED BY HONOR
Hughes said his Honor Flight experience had more positive impact on him than he could have imagined. Participants were given rousing send-offs and welcomes on both ends, and were treated like VIPs everywhere they went.
“People who didn’t know us were cheering everywhere,” Hughes said. “It felt great to be appreciated that way.”
In an era when the military was viewed in a negative light by much of the American public, Hughes and others returning from Vietnam didn’t exactly see a red carpet rolled out before them when they got home. They got a bit of restitution during the Honor Flight trip.
“I would reach to shake peoples’ hands,” Hughes said, “and sometimes they would grab my arm and pull me close and whisper in my ear, ‘I’m trying to pay you back for the way you were treated when you came home.’ It was very heart-warming.”
Despite that cold shoulder treatment from many American citizens, most Vietnam veterans say they were only doing their job over there.
“It was a different feeling that the population had toward the military,” Hughes said. “But we were all over there doing what our government asked us to do, and we were the ones who ultimately paid the price for it.”
Another thing most Vietnam vets agree on is that the U.S. didn’t fight the war properly.
“If Washington would have kept their nose out of it and let us fight it the way it should have been fought, it would have ended a whole lot differently,” Hughes said. “It was a painful experience to be over there knowing that most of what you were doing was fruitless.”
The veterans’ arrival back in Springfield was met by a throng of well-wishers.
“There were about 300 people clapping and cheering and the Kiwanis band was even playing military music,” Hughes said. “There were people all over the place and every one of them wanted to shake your hand. There’s nothing about war that’s good; I don’t care how prepared you think you are or how you feel when you first go over there, something happens to you when you’re there – and it’s not good.”
Hughes said every veteran should apply for the Honor Flight. Several fly out of Springfield each year, and close to 160,000 veterans have participated nationwide since the program began in 2005.
“There was a lot of camaraderie and healing that went on,” Hughes said. “Even if someone doesn’t think they’ll qualify because what they did in the military wasn’t worthy, they have to try anyway because it’s worth it. When you’ve been to war, there’s a lot of bad stuff you have to deal with afterward. This really helps take away some of that.”
Hughes is of the mind that there’s no such thing as an unworthy veteran.
“And that’s the way they treated you on this flight,” he said. “Whether you were cooking potatoes for the guys on the front or cleaning toilets, you were still a veteran and you were in some way involved in what went on and responsible for the well being of everyone else.”
Area veterans interested in applying for an Honor Flight can find out how online at www.honorflightoftheozarks.org. More information is available at www.honorflight.org.