“People often refer to it as the ‘the forgotten war,’ but let me tell you, it was a real war, and these fellows knew it,” said Ron Saxton, who is helping organize a flight in the veterans’ honor from Columbia to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.
Saxton, a retired Army infantryman, met with dozens of volunteers as they helped 90 military veterans get ready for the expenses-paid, daylong tour of military memorials. About 70 are Korean War veterans, and about 20 served in World War II.
Since the first flight in 2008, the group Honor Flight South Carolina has taken nearly 3,000 World War II veterans on 14 tours. Because many World War II-era veterans can’t bear the strain of the daylong trip, the group is now including the Korean veterans.
Historians and military writers often refer to the bitter 1950s Korean conflict as “the forgotten war.” One veteran preparing for the flight said he thinks that’s because few are aware of the Cold War tensions that drew America into years of far-away warfare.
“To me, it was a forgotten war. My service was forgotten,” said Joe Russell, 79, a sailor aboard the USS Coral Sea from 1951 to 1954.
Russell said that in the 1950s, there was little of the public welcome that is common for veterans today.
“That’s the reason I’m so excited to be here,” he said. “This is the first time in 60 years that I feel like my service contributed something.”
The United States and the Soviet Union divided control of the Korean peninsula after World War II. War broke out June 25, 1950, when the North Korean army invaded the South by crossing the dividing line on the 38th parallel. Troops battled for years before an armistice was signed in 1953 and a demilitarized zone was established.
Russell said he was lucky – he didn’t have to endure ground combat. He was grateful to go home to Hickory Grove, S.C., where he married, raised six children, and worked for a textile firm as he managed the family’s 400-acre farm.
Christie Whitaker, 66, who is escorting Russell on the flight and sat with him at the orientation, said she’s honored to be able to do it.
“I’m glad to be able to help Joe feel special,” said Whitaker, a funeral director in Newberry, S.C.
The $62,000 flight tab is covered by individual contributors, corporations and local schoolchildren who hold fundraising drives, Saxton said. Escorts each contribute $500 for the flight and other expenses. Part of their role is helping the veterans on and off buses. In addition, volunteer physicians and nurses who have reviewed each veteran’s medical records will attend.
The veterans will visit the memorials for those who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The tour also stops at Arlington Cemetery and the Iwo Jima memorial, and wraps up at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Korean veteran Bill Leopard of Aiken, S.C., said that when he read that Korean War veterans were eligible for the trips, he was one of the first to apply.
“I was envious of them,” Leopard, a former Navy seaman, said of the World War II veterans. “So it pleased me no end to find out I was able to go this time around.”
Leopard, 80, said he was in the National Guard when the war broke out in 1950. He transferred to the Navy and trained as an aviation electrician’s mate. He served on the carrier USS Intrepid from 1954 to 1955, and then came home to a career with Bell South and AT&T. He says he keeps in touch with his Intrepid shipmates and intends to visit the ship during a reunion in New Jersey this fall. The carrier is docked in New York City as part of a sea, air and space museum complex.
Jim McLaughlin, chairman of the national Honor Flight Network, said the organization has sent about 99,000 World War II veterans on trips to Washington since the mid-2000s. Most of those veterans now are in their 90s, and a few have even been 100 years old, he said. But about 15 percent of the organizations, which exist in about 40 states, have shifted to taking Korean veterans, he said.
To Saxton, it makes no difference when the veterans served.
“Volunteer, draftee, officer, enlisted, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “All their blood was red.”