ROSWELL, Ga. — Joseph Nixon is 93, a slender man with a Georgia drawl and attentive eyes and a firm handshake. He’s a Navy man, still. Atop his head rests a blue cap. “USS Wichita,” it says.
By midday today, Nixon expects to be with the Calhoun County Honor Flight in Washington, D.C., which will bring Nick — that’s what friends call him — twin firsts: He’s never seen the World War II National Memorial, and he’s never been to the nation’s capital.
Plus, it’s his birthday.
His 94th birthday.
Stories abound about how America’s aging wartime veterans react when they first see their memorials. There’s emotion. Appreciation. Tears. Joy. Sadness. Remembrances of the fallen. Nixon’s eager for the experience, whatever it brings.
I expect “all of it,” he said. “I’m going to enjoy it, for sure.”
Previously, Calhoun County veterans who have traveled on Honor Flight missions have joined with other Alabama groups, often from Jefferson County. But organizers say today’s Honor Flight is the largest-ever Calhoun County effort, its original goal being to escort a covey of local veterans on what could be their final chance to see Washington’s memorials.
Organizers, led by Jacksonville’s David Hall, a retired first sergeant in the U.S. Army, raised more than $70,000 through sponsors and donations to pay the travel expenses for the veterans and their guardians. The Calhoun County group, pressed for time, couldn’t secure the required permit from the National Park Service for today’s visit, so organizers partnered with a similar-sized group here in Roswell, whose arrangements were already set.
Monday afternoon, Calhoun County’s Honor Flight veterans and their guardians gathered at the Oxford Civic Center for their sendoff: 11 World War II veterans, 16 from the Korean War and six from the Vietnam War. A musical group from Parker Memorial Baptist Church, the HeartNotes, sang the national anthem and a set of old-time songs, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “Mr. Sandman” and “Sugartime” among them. One by one, the veterans filed out of the civic center amid a chorus of applause and cheers.
Most of the veterans who boarded the bus for the interstate ride to their Roswell hotel were from Calhoun County (17), with a smattering from Etowah, Clay, Cleburne, Randolph, St. Clair and Jefferson counties, plus one from Georgia — Nick Nixon, who resides in Bremen and whose nephew and guardian, Randy Otwell, lives in Anniston. All told, 33 veterans make up the Calhoun County group.
Like all good efforts, this one began with an idea 18 months ago — not with a plan, just a simple idea passed between a few local veterans like Hall, who eventually made pitches to veterans groups in Calhoun County. Could they raise enough money? Could they gin up enough interest? Could they pull it off?
Committees formed. Volunteers stepped up. Sponsors followed.
Eventually, “It looked like we were going to do this thing,” said co-chair Ken Saunders.
As it turned out, if they had had more time to secure the necessary NPS permit, the Calhoun County group could have filled a chartered plane with local veterans. The flip side is enough seed money remains out of the raised $70,000 to jumpstart a potential future trip.
“Like anything you do the first time, you have to always educate the community, and that’s difficult,” Hall said. “This is a good learning experience for us.”
Once their Atlanta-based charter lands in Washington, organizers will shuttle the veterans and their guardians through a seemingly never-ending road trip. They’ll visit the World War II memorial and tour the memorials for the Vietnam and Korean wars, as well as the Lincoln Memorial. Next comes a brief stop at Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Memorial. Last on the agenda is the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which the veterans will attend.
Organizers unsuccessfully tried to arrange for a veteran from each of the wars to lay a wreath at the tomb.
Time, more than personal desire, is the driving cause for these Honor Flights. Census and Department of Veterans Affairs data show an average of 372 World War II veterans die nationally each day. In 2016, fewer than 8,000 were still alive in Alabama and fewer than 700,000 nationwide. The numbers for Korean and Vietnam war veterans are larger but are expected to decline at a similar pace in coming years.
Since 2011, roughly half of the World War II veterans alive that year have died, according to the VA. And Frank Buckles, America’s last surviving World War I veteran, died in 2011.
Oxford’s Dan Morrison, 81, served on four Navy ships during the Korean War — the USS Lectron, Vesuvius, Ranier and Fletcher. (He also worked on the Apollo space program in Huntsville.) He now works maintenance at Faith Christian School in Anniston. He’s on the trip.
“I’m not sure” what to expect, he said Monday. “I’ve never been (to the memorial), but I’m excited about seeing some of the men that were over there. There are a lot of folks I know who didn’t make it back.”
Bobby Joe Ledford, Morrison’s roommate on the trip, is 85 and lives in Eastaboga. He, too, served in the Army during the Korean War. So is Howard Waldrep, a Korean War veteran and longtime Wellborn High School principal. And a host of others whose own stories are as compelling as the rest.
Before the group left Oxford, Vietnam veteran Joel Denny, the retired U.S. Army colonel who served for years as the commander of Anniston Army Depot, gave the veterans an order.
The words “just” and “only” aren’t allowed on this trip, he said.
“I don’t want to hear anyone say, ‘I was just in for four years,’ or ‘I was just in an office,’” he said. “What you did was serve your country.”