Conyers resident James Estes, assisted by guardian Erika Sellers, is congratulated by the TSA Honor Guard as he boards an airplane leaving from Atlanta headed to Washington, D.C., as part of the Honor Flight program. (Special Photo: Gary Ezell)
James Estes walked through the ruins of Hiroshima just a few months after the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese city. He remembers the landscape being empty, except for a small white Catholic church that somehow withstood the force of the blast.
He also recalls visiting caves where Japanese soldiers still hid after the bombing, unaware of Japan’s defeat. He and his fellow soldiers took no prisoners, he said, as the Japanese soldiers refused to surrender.
Such was the experience for Estes, 18 and fresh out of high school, as a soldier serving in the Army during World War II. He learned to live with fear as his constant companion.
“It was a good experience, but I wouldn’t want to go through it again. It was a great service, I thought it was good. I learned a lot more than I did in high school,” said Estes, who lost his brother in the war.
At 87, Estes has finally had an opportunity to see what his country has built to honor his 18 months of service, and that of the other more than 16 million WWII veterans.
On April 23, Estes and 24 other veterans, from both WWII and the Korean War, participated in the Honor Flight, an all-expenses paid day-long trip to Washington, D.C., where they toured several monuments dedicated to those who served during wartime.
A national non-profit, the Honor Flight Network provides veterans with free flights to D.C. so they can tour veteran memorials and reflect upon their time of service. Each veteran who goes on an Honor Flight is accompanied by a guardian who is responsible for assisting the veteran with wheelchair transport and other activities throughout the day-long event.
Honor Flight has 120 hubs across 43 states. Conyers is one of two Honor Flight hubs in Georgia. The Conyers chapter has operated under the guidance of Anita and Brad Smith since 2011 and the organization has offered nine flights so far to veterans. The next Honor Flight, scheduled for May 29, is full but the non-profit is looking for applicants to go on the Sept. 17 flight.
WWII veterans are the priority but the program does consider Korean War veterans. Guardians, who have to finance the trip themselves at $500 per person, are also sought.
On a typical trip, the veterans and their guardians meet at the American Legion Post 77 in Conyers at 4:30 a.m. and load onto buses which are escorted to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport by dozens of representatives from the Patriot Guard, law enforcement from the city of Conyers and Rockdale and Newton counties, and the Georgia State Patrol.
“The last time I stopped counting at 40 motorcycles,” said Anita Smith.
Sheriff’s officers help the veterans up to the gate and assist in loading them on the plane for the flight. Two paramedics from National EMS also accompany the flight.
The veterans arrive at Reagan National Airport about 10 a.m. to cheering throngs of people and a water cannon salute.
They then all load onto a tour bus and visit the National WWII Memorial as well as other memorials such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the Air Force Memorial. They are served dinner buy the USO and they board back onto the plane at 7 p.m. and arrive back in Atlanta at 9 p.m.
More than 100 people greeted the veterans back in Atlanta this last trip, said Smith.
“We’re getting a larger and larger crowd greeting us at night,” she said.
Smith said the Honor Flight not only allows the veterans an opportunity to see the memorials, and be honored by the public, but also provides them a chance to connect with each other.
“That has been the most important thing is the conversations they have, what they did and their understanding of what each has been through. A lot of them during those days just came home from the war and they went to work, it was cut and dry, and they forgot about what they did in the war. One of them, one son, found out his father was a prisoner of war and he never knew it; that’s the kind of stuff they’re holding within them,” said Smith.
“It can be an eye opener for those family members and those guardians who aren’t family members to listen to those stories too.”
Estes said his heart warmed when he experienced all the clapping and cheering getting on and off the planes and that at the WWII Memorial, his spirits also got a boost from public support. When the veterans all lined up in a semi-circle at the memorial a crowd formed around them.
“Every person who was in that memorial that day all circled around us and they were clapping all the time. That was a just a great feeling,” he said.
Estes said he almost didn’t go on the flight because he had seen most of the memorials in D.C. But he acquiesced when he learned a friend’s daughter wanted to be his guardian. He also considered the fact that he hadn’t yet see the WWII Memorial.
“Now, I’m so proud that I went, it was worth it,” said Estes.
What would he say to those veterans hesitating to go?
“I say take that trip. I say go,” he said.
To learn more, visit www.honorflightconyers.com.