Spring Honor Flight Could Be the Last

Matthew Burkett was still a teenager when he was drafted into the Army near the end of World War II. He served in the quartermaster corp in Europe, then re-enlisted and would go on to a 21-year military career.

In May, Burkett, now 89, will go on a free Honor Flight to Washington to see the National World War II Memorial. Burkett is one of only three World War II veterans signed up for the 100-veteran flight, which may be the last for World War II veterans because so few members of the Greatest Generation are left.

Sara, Matthews' wife of 68 years, said at first he didn't want to go on the flight first because of his age. But, he was convinced by his granddaughter, Kristy Gwyn, a teacher in the Lexington 2 school district in Cayce/West Columbia.

"She just didn't take no for an answer," Sara said from the Burkett's home in West Columbia. (Matthew is too hard of hearing to speak on the phone). "But I think he's excited now. I know I'm excited for him."

Since 2008, Honor Flight of South Carolina has carried more than 2,000 World War II veterans in 21 flights to see their memorial. That's the equivalent of a large U.S. Army regiment. Other chapters have carried vets from the Upstate, Myrtle Beach and Charleston.

But now, finding those veterans is proving difficult.

Even a 16-year-old boy who joined the Navy with his parents' permission at the end of the war in 1945 would be 86 today. Most still living are in their 90s.

But Columbia restauranteur Bill Dukes hasn't given up. He's the chairman of Honor Flight of South Carolina who started the organization after a trip to the memorial with his father, William, an infantryman in the Pacific during the war. The trip was so emotional and cathartic for his father that Dukes vowed to host as many of the old warriors as he could.

The other two World War II vets set for the May flight are from Myrtle Beach. And Dukes is also reaching out to the Greenville Honor Flight organization to try to find veterans from the Upstate.

"I know there are more out there," Dukes said from a corner table of his Blue Marlin restaurant in Columbia, the walls filled with photographs of previous Honor Flights and the veterans who were on them.

"We're really trying to stir the pot," he said. "The reality is, this might be our final opportunity."

The Honor Flight is free to veterans and includes meals and snacks throughout the day. Guardians accompany each veteran on the flight; there is a $500 fee per guardian for the honor. Medical personnel are also part of the travel group.

The veterans are treated to a patriotic send-off in Columbia, and they receive an equally enthusiastic welcome in Washington.

In the nation's capital, the veterans tour the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Lincoln Memorial and the Iwo Jima Memorial. In the afternoon, they are special guests at Arlington National Cemetery as they observe the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier.

The veterans return to Columbia in the evening after the one-day trip, where they are treated to yet another hero's welcome. The public is encouraged to welcome the veterans home.

But it is often the camaraderie and sharing of old stories -- often previously untold -- that makes the trip for the veterans.

"Ninety-eight percent come back fatigued, but so happy and pleased they went," said Vernon Brantley, 91, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge from Forest Acres who went on an Honor Flight in April 2012. "It takes a burden off of them."

"For about 50 years most of us just tried to shut things out," he said. "I didn't like Christmas trees for a long time because they smelled like the trees around us (at the Battle of the Bulge) that were shattered by artillery shells. But we go on these flights with the other veterans and talk about the happy things. It helps."

Honor Flight was formed to honor World War II veterans. But with the Greatest Generation fading, Honor Flight of South Carolina also is reaching out to the veterans of the Korean War -- men and women of the same generation, now in their 80s, who sacrificed just as much as their comrades in World War II, but have rarely been thanked for their service.

"But they are about the same age as the World War II veterans," Dukes said. "So they are becoming harder to find, too."

And if any World War II veteran capable of traveling is located after the May flight, "I'll find transportation for them myself," he said. "Every one of them should be able to see their memorial just once."

For Matthew Burkett, that is planned for May. And his granddaughter Kristy will be going along with him.

"I'm excited because I get to do something with him," she said. "I know he will enjoy it. And I just want to share in that excitement."

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