Flight of honor

Field of 4,000 Gold Stars honors more than 400,000 lives lost during the war (Photo by Richard Latoff)
Linda Klug, transcript coordinator at Columbia College, remembers her father Russell Wilson as a dignified, quiet gentleman. Like most of his generation, Wilson answered the call to duty after Pearl Harbor to serve as a sergeant in the "Rolling W" 89th Division in France and Germany.

He was in combat, but never talked much about it. When Klug would ask about it, Wilson joked that he was just on clean-up duty. And the two Bronze Stars, awarded strictly for exceptional bravery or quick thinking that saved men's lives? He'd fired the big machine gun because he was too scared to run like many of the men, he told Klug. Another time, he fired back at a German sniper in a bell tower, just like two other men did.

This modest man settled down to marriage after the war and worked as a typesetter for much of his life in mid-Missouri. "He worked hard, kept us comfortable. That's the example they gave to all of us," Klug says.

Debt paid in full

The WWII Memorial Pillars at night
The elegant World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 2004, and Wilson wanted to go. But first he was afflicted by Alzheimer's disease. Then he suffered a heart attack in February 2009, and never got to see his memorial.

This is one reason Klug, her older sister Donna and other members of her family support Central Missouri Honor Flight, a local hub of a national program that flies veterans who couldn’t otherwise make the trip due to financial or physical handicaps to the World War II, Korean or Vietnam memorials. Patrick Leslie, customer service representative for Mail and Print Services, Associate Professor of History Dr. Michael Polley and Polley's wife Mary Paulsell, also are involved in the program. Leslie's mother was a nurse in World War II and recently flew from Wyoming, and Paulsell, director of the University Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the Central Missouri Honor Flight secretary and fundraising chair. Honor Flight is entirely dependent on volunteers and donations, and doesn't accept a penny from veterans. The organization believes they have already paid the price.

"I know dad had donated money to the WWII Memorial. So my sister and I did what he would have done to assist his fellow soldiers. We knew it would be dad's wish," Klug says.

There have been two Honor Flights thus far from mid-Missouri. Veterans and dedicated guardians (some veterans are in wheelchairs or otherwise disabled) report to the Holiday Inn Select at 3 a.m. for a bus ride to St. Louis, where a commercial flight departs St. Louis at 6 a.m. for Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI). The group then follows the same procedure in reverse, arriving in Columbia by 10 p.m. Klug says a charter plane from Columbia would slice many hours from the day, but that it is prohibitive at about $53,000 per flight.

A day that begins at 3 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m. - these aging, often frail men must be pretty bleary, right?

"You should see them at 3 a.m., how enthused they are," Klug says. "It's the same at 10 p.m." Klug adds that a crowd lined up to cheer them at the St. Louis airport and that, at busy, jaded BWI, people put down their BlackBerrys to applaud. On the bus back to Columbia, she says the Missouri Highway Patrol and members of the local Patriot Guard escorted the bus to the Columbia Holiday Inn Select with lights flashing.

Klug and her family have contributed financially and written notes of appreciation for the veterans on the flight back. The veterans' names are barked out military mail-call style, and a volunteer reads the note aloud.

Some of these notes are powerfully moving, like the one from the Columbia Independent School child who had a Jewish forebear in Europe in the 1940s. Without the veteran for whom the note is being read, she writes, she would simply never have been born. Watch students reading letters.

Heroic nurses, a Silver Star

Leslie's mother served as an army nurse in England during the war, living with five other women in cinderblock huts and working 12-hour shifts. Leslie says his mother was on the first Honor Flight from Wyoming this spring to see the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, which honors the two million or so women who have served this country in every war since the Revolutionary War. And Paulsell, Central Missouri Honor Flight secretary and fundraiser in chief, calls, writes, sends e-mails, coordinates with local Honor Flight sponsor KOMU-TV 8 and otherwise exhorts a small army of volunteers to raise interest, awareness and funds. Polley, her husband, says he proudly serves "as a gopher, stamp licker, etc." but hopes to be more involved during his spring 2010 sabbatical.

"I see my dad's face in every one of these men," Paulsell says. "They left their moms and did what they had to do."

Her father, Lee Paulsell, served in the 84th Infantry (the Railsplitters). He received a battlefield commission and a Silver Star, the nation's third highest military decoration, given for valor in the face of the enemy during the 1944 Battle of the Bulge. Paulsell says her father scouted out a group of Germans planning a sneak attack on his unit, was able to take the information back to his commanding officer and saved many lives.

The Honor Flight network says it has been growing steadily since inception in 2005, when 137 veterans were flown to see memorials. That number grew to 891 veterans in 2006, more than 5,000 veterans in 2007 and 11,137 last year, according to the network's Web site. The Web site says more than 42,165 veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam will have been flown by the end of this year – all at absolutely no cost to the veteran. It costs $300 per veteran for the trip from central Missouri.

Vets party June 9

At 5 p.m. June 9, Central Missouri Honor Flight will host a welcome home party and fundraiser for the veterans and guardians of the first two flights at the Sports Zone in the Holiday Inn Executive Center at the corner of I-70 and Stadium Blvd. The event also will feature live broadcasts on KOMU-TV 8 at 5 and 6 p.m., with a special about the first two flights at 6:30 p.m.

If you are available, willing and able to help with the June 9 event or any other aspect of the Honor Flight, contact Paulsell at paulsellm@missouri.edu or (573) 289-3799.

Why now? Time is simply running out for World War II veterans. Some estimates say more than 1,000 World War II veterans are dying per day. "We don’t have three years to get this program all together," says Klug. "The youngest World War II veteran is well into his or her 80s now. They will all be gone in five to 10 years."