Honor flight tours; local guest

Sometimes while collecting information for a story, the unexpected happens. Recently a gentleman who grew up in Waterford during the 1930’s was interviewed about his early days on the Muskingum River. It became clear during the interview that he had a much greater story to tell.

Gerald “Jerry” Drake, 89, of Veto, a World War II veteran, traveled absolutely free to Washington, D.C., on April 26, 2014. He was a guest of Honor Flight Columbus, an organization of volunteers that sends veterans each year to our nation’s capital to view war memorials. The focus is on World War II and Korean War veterans, but some Honor Flight hubs also include Vietnam War veterans. Overseas service is not required. An application must be completed and submitted to a regional office. For any veteran of these wars who would like to visit the World War II Memorial and other memorials in Washington, D.C., this is an opportunity of a lifetime. Since there is no charge, this program is especially beneficial for veterans with limited finances, transportation difficulties, or physical limitations. Jerry said while on the tour, “I never spent a nickel of my own money.”

During World War II Jerry Drake served in the 504th Gun Battalion in Leyte, Philippines, Okinawa and South Korea. This unit was attached to the 96th Infantry Division of the Tenth Army. Although he had been to Washington, D. C., he had never seen the World War II Memorial. He boarded a plane in Columbus and traveled to Baltimore along with about eighty other veterans. There were veterans from Michigan to Pennsylvania and as far south as West Virginia. A guardian or mentor, a younger person who could move around freely, was assigned to each veteran, many of whom were in wheelchairs. Jerry was fortunate because he already knew his mentor. He was veteran David Eichhorn of Vincent, his son-in-law and a person familiar with military organizations.

Columbus served as the hub for this particular tour. This organization alone plans about seven tours, sending up to eight hundred veterans each summer. The Columbus hub is part of a nationwide network with 137 hubs. Since its creation in 2005, Honor Flight has flown over 117,556 veterans.

In Baltimore they boarded three tour buses and traveled to Arlington National Cemetery where they witnessed the Changing of the Guard. A crowd of about one thousand greeted them at the World War II Memorial. The government provides no funding for the tours. At first people gave $5 and $10, but once businesses and organizations leaned how successful the program had become, large donations are common. In the picture Jerry is thanking Bob Dole for being instrumental in securing the funding for the World War II Memorial.

There were many veterans who wore shirts specially made for the event. One said, “If you can read this, thank a Teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a Veteran.” There was little free time in the group’s schedule and packed lunch boxes were provided so they could stay on the move. Besides the World War II Memorial, the group visited five other war memorials. On the bus during the return trip between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, it was announced that the mail had arrived. The veterans received a packet full of mail. Jerry’s included about twenty-four letters from family members. They had been contacted in advance. A letter from one of his grandsons, Dr. Ryan Gilland, who had moved to Chattanooga, was especially meaningful. Of Jerry’s six grandchildren and fifteen great grandchildren, Ryan lived the greatest distance from home. There were letters from women’s clubs, school children, and others, all thanking the veteran for his or her service. One of the highlights of the trip was a meeting at the end of the day in a large banquet room in Columbus where about 800 people greeted them in a receiving line. There were boy and girl scouts and many dignitaries. All the veterans were recognized by calling out their names, their unit and service record. Looking at her husband at the end of our interview, Katie summed it up best when she said, “Honor Tour was like giving him a shot in the arm!”

Information about the program, tour schedules, applications, regional hubs, and making donations can be obtained from www.honorflight.org, writing PO Box 12036, Columbus, Ohio 43212, or calling 1-614-284-4987. For a local contact, call Katie Tucker, First Vice Commander, American Legion Post 389, Beverly, Ohio, at 740-336-8575.

Phillip L. Crane, a Waterford resident and Marietta history teacher for 32 years, will share stories of historical events in the Lower Muskingum Valley.