Whether on wheels, wings or ships Bill Thornton has traveled to many far away locations. But the 95-year-old man’s excursions haven’t always been pleasant in nature. The Richmond man is part of an ever shrinking fraternity of Americans. On December 7, 1941 the U.S. sailor survived the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on board the battleship Tennessee.
“After a day or two you could smell death,” Thornton said. “There were explosions and bombings. That is the only way to explain it. Mad. Upset. Anger. I was trying to figure out a way to tell my family I was alright.”
Thornton would also live through the iconic battles at Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Distant places etched in our nation’s psyche, but one destination – on the home front – always remained out of reach. Until now.
“It’s going to be fun. We’re going to make it fun,” Thornton said.
Early one recent morning, while the rest of Richmond slept, a small army of aging veterans gathered at the VFW in Mechanicsville; preparing for a field trip to remember. This band of graying warriors, the youngest pushing 90-years of age, will witness a first in their lifetimes. With the patriotism, pomp and circumstance of a military ceremony volunteers work tirelessly to salute their special guests.
“I think he is the oldest veteran going on the trip,” Thornton’s daughter Linda Mills said. “I’m looking forward to going. I’m looking forward to sharing this with him.”
Instead of marching off to war these veterans will be celebrated up and down Interstate 95 during “Honor Flight.” A national non-profit that aims to fly or drive all surviving World War II veterans, like Petersburg’s Philip Morini, to the memorial built in their honor — free of charge.
The 91-year-old Morini sacrificed much during the war. A shrapnel wound nearly took the soldier’s life in Italy.
His brother, August, lost his life during the Battle of the Bulge. Till now, the thought of visiting the WWII Memorial in Washington seemed too painful. But when Honor Flight called – he had a change of heart.
“Good experience. I didn’t think I would ever be here,” Morini said.
Whatever upsetting memories may linger are eased somewhat as the veterans receive red carpet treatment along the way. Since Honor Flight was established back in 2007, there have been 109 Honor Flight bases established across the nation. Since that time more than 138,000 veterans have gone on this emotional journey.
This Honor Flight carried the veterans and their guardians to several monuments where the graying generation is lauded by a younger generation carrying the torch of protecting a nation. The four buses carrying veterans from Virginia would stop at the U.S. Air Force Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Marine Corp Museum and the WWII Memorial.