BANGOR, Maine — When Korean War veteran George McCann of Bangor arrived at the Portland Jetport last week, flags were waving and a 10-piece band started playing patriotic music.
"I was like, 'What the heck is all this for?' Then, I realized it was for me," the 81-year-old former Army paratrooper and cook said Tuesday about the Honor Flight Maine sendoff for his journey to Washington, D.C., to see the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
He was accompanied on his trip by Honor Flight founder Earl Morse, who started the program in 2004 to connect veterans with the memorials built to honor their service.
Morse was working for a small Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Springfield, Ohio, when he founded the program. He moved to Vinalhaven in December 2013 after retiring from the Air Force and the VA and continues to participate in Honor Flight when he can get away from his job as a physician's assistant on the island.
McCann described Morse as his "assistant" who pushed him around D.C. in his wheelchair to visit the many sights. The duo returned to Maine on Sunday.
Morse said recently that he discovered while working for the VA that many veterans had never seen the war memorials that were created to honor them, which is what inspired him to start the Honor Flight Network that has provided more than 159,700 veterans a free trip to the nation's capital to see them.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial was dedicated in July 1995. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened in 1982, and the World War II Memorial opened in April 2004. All are located on the National Mall, which also includes the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
"He does an incredible job," McCann said of Morse.
McCann enlisted in the U.S. Army in April 1952 and spent about a year and a half in Korea before the war ended. Then he was stationed in Japan where he was a cook for four years before returning stateside. He was part of a group of local veterans, led by Ken Buckley, who helped to organize and build a memorial at Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor honoring the 223 Maine men who were killed or declared missing in action during the war from 1950-53.
The local memorial and the memorial in Washington, D.C., were both dedicated on July 27, 1995.
The three-year conflict that started on June 25, 1950, and ended with a ceasefire on July 27, 1953, claimed the lives of 36,574 United States soldiers, airmen and Marines. More than 7,500 remain missing in action, McCann said, and that he still thinks about them.
The first flight for Honor Flight New England, based in Hooksett, New Hampshire, took off in June 2009, and the first flight for Honor Flight Maine took place in March 2014. There are two flights planned for this summer in June and July, according to the group's website.
McCann, a retired Army infantry sergeant, got to see the Korean War memorial, then visited Arlington National Cemetery to witness a "Changing of the Guard" at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
He also was part of the local group who returned to Korea in 2004 for ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of a mutual defense treaty between the United States and the Republic of Korea.
"When I left Korea as a young man, it was a pile of dirt," the octogenarian said. "When I went back and saw what they did with the place, I wanted to move there. That was enlightening. I was happy to see something was accomplished. At that time [of the war], nobody thought we'd accomplished anything, but we actually did."
McCann said while the Korean War may be "The Forgotten War," it will never leave his mind, especially with so many lives lost and so many still missing in action.
"I get a little angry when people neglect us," he said.