Nancy Page had embarked on the task of informing World War II veterans, who had been on a waiting list, that they were selected to fly to Washington as part of the Honor Flight Arizona Program.
After four calls, she had to stop.
Page serves on the board of directors of the Prescott-based Honor Flight Arizona program that raises money to send World War II veterans to Washington so they can tour the war memorials on the National Mall and other sites.
But instead of informing the veterans with the happy news that they were selected to make the trip, she was met with the sad news from their wives.
“The first four phone calls I made, the wives told me their husbands had died,” Page said. “I just sat their and consoled four wives who were crying as they were telling me that their husbands were really looking forward to the trip. After the fourth call, I had to hang up the phone because I couldn’t continue.”
Page said that about 25 percent of the 360 veterans in Arizona who are on the waiting list to fly to Washington become disabled or die in the average of 18 months they are waiting.
But Hopefully, in the next three months, at least 98 veterans including many from the East Valley will get their wish of taking the same three-day trip 350 other veterans from Arizona have during the last three years of the Honors Flight Arizona program — a cause funded entirely through donations.
A recent $10,000 contribution to Honor Flight Arizona from Boeing, which has a major facility in Mesa, will allow a group of 12 veterans from Mesa to make the trip to Washington from May 1-3. Three volunteers will also go (paying their own way) and many of the other 24 veterans on that trip are also from the East Valley. The nonprofit organization has a unit in Mesa with numerous volunteers who said they need to raise more money to send more vets from the era referred to as “The Greatest Generation” — a generation whose ranks are rapidly depleting.
Today, the average age of a World War II veteran ranges from 89 to 95, and as many as 1,500 of them are dying off each day. There currently are 3 million of them remaining (down from 16 million), and that number includes 16,000 World War II veterans living in Mesa alone and 50,000 in the Grand Canyon state, according to statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Tony Ham, director of operations for Boeing Mesa who serves on the Mesa Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, said that he had hoped his father-in-law who lived in Missouri would go on such a trip to Washington, but he died without getting to.
“We need help raising more money,” Ham said. “When I heard about the program, I was under the impression that the government paid for the trips, but realized it was all through donations. We’re hoping that more businesses throughout Mesa will donate to this program so more veterans get to go. We’re losing these guys, and this is a good way of saying thank you.”
There will be 32 Arizona veterans flying on the Honor Flight trip to Washington this month and 32 more in April.
There are other Honor Flight programs throughout the United States closer to Washington who don’t have to shoulder as much of the expense for each veteran that Arizona does. Honor Flight Arizona pays $850 to send each veteran to Washington, a trip that covers airfare and hotel costs for a three-day trip that concludes at Arlington National Cemetery to observe the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“These guys don’t have a lot of time,” Page said. “Time is not on their side. They’re amazing people, who tell amazing stories. Some of their stories are humorous; others are terrifying.”
At age 86, Robert Wilson and Robert Lybek, both of Mesa are among the “younger” veterans looking forward to making the May trip.
Wilson enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1943 to become a fighter pilot on B-51s, B-47s and P-40s. But in the near two years it took to get trained, the war was winding down. Overall, he served in the military for 23 years before becoming a pilot for American Airlines. Prior to working for the airline, Wilson said he taught classes on what it takes to become a fighter pilot and what it can do to your body.
“It was a pleasant surprise,” Wilson said of being selected to make the trip in May. “I’m looking forward to it. But at 86, I don’t feel so young, he laughed. I’m glad I’ll get to do it and see a lot of sites with a group.”
Lybek, who served as a C-4 in the Army from 1944 to 1946 after being drafted as an 18-year-old farm boy from Wisconsin, rode on amphibious ships that landed troops on various battlefronts. He was preparing to go to Japan in August, 1945, and said he still remembers watching the movie “Music for Millions” with Margaret O’Brien and June Allyson when it was announced that the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Japan, preventing the need for his group to go.
“The war was something nobody wanted to do, but it was something we knew we had to do,” Lybek said.
Lybek, who will be accompanied on the trip by his son from Minnesota, said he is excited to go and his family has arranged for a flag with his name on it to fly from the Capitol Building while he is there,
“I think it all will be something,” Lybek said.