Seaborn Christopher, 87, doesn’t see too well anymore, but as he neared a granite facade of the World War II memorial, he found the word he sought in large block letters: “Guadalcanal.”
Christopher, of Dawsonville, was one of 25 World War II and Korean War veterans who flew in from Georgia Wednesday to tour the national monuments as part of the Honor Flight program. Over eight years, about 100,000 veterans have been transported to Washington free of charge through a network of nonprofits throughout the country, including the Conyers chapter that arranged Wednesday’s trip.
On a sun-drenched morning the men slowly made their way through the 7.4-acre World War II memorial, seeking out acknowledgement of the war’s major battlegrounds and posing in front of the pillar labeled “Georgia.”
Christopher said he volunteered for the Marines when he was 16, and spent the war hopping through the islands of the South Pacific. One of his stops was Guadalcanal, the scene of fierce fighting with the Japanese.
“We were sure glad to see you flyboys,” he told one fellow traveler who served in the Army Air Corps.
The day was designed for such interaction. The group first met each other a few weeks earlier to learn about their trip and be paired with a volunteer guardian if a family member could not accompany them.
Rick Chaffin, retired Air Force himself, signed up to escort a vet and was paired with Hank Gahn of Cumming. They were joking like old pals by midday.
“Are we ready, driver?” Gahn asked, as they prepared to leave the World War II memorial.
“I’ll get the limo,” Chaffin replied, grabbing Gahn’s wheelchair.
They rode in style. Police cars and dozens of motorcycles provided a motorcade escort from the American Legion hall in Conyers to Hartsfield-Jackson airport for the group’s early-morning flight.
When they arrived at Reagan National Airport, a handful of volunteers from the USO cheered and bystanders looked up from their newspapers and cellphones to join in. An Air Force brass quintet struck up next to baggage claim, and balding heads nodded along to the Marines’ Hymn.
“Tearful,” said Walter Sellers of Hiawassee, who served in Northern Italy.
“I’ve never seen such a reception, everyone hollering and clapping and thanking us,” said Elip Spence of Alpharetta, who gave his age as 87-and-a-half. “I had no idea I was going to be honored that way. I’ll never forget it.”
From the airport the group took a bus to the National Mall to check out the World War II memorial. Completed in 2004, it was the inspiration for the first Honor Flight when an Ohio man set up a nonprofit so he could fly local veterans to see their monument. According to Honor Flight’s website, there are now 121 affiliates in 41 states.
Dave Smith set up the Conyers chapter after a Fayetteville group exhausted the local supply of World War II vets and stopped flying. Smith organized the first trip in 2010 and does about three per year, drawing from all over the state and sometimes elsewhere in the Southeast. All they have to do is get to Conyers by 4 a.m. on departure day, and he takes care of the rest.
The group relies mostly on private donations, Smith said, with a few grants thrown in. The wheelchairs are donated, as is the photography by Conyers’ Gary Ezell. In all, each trip costs about $20,000 per group.
The one-day itinerary is packed. Wednesday, the group visited memorials for World War II, the Korean War, the Marine Corps and the Air Force, as well as Arlington National Cemetery.
At the Marine Corps memorial — which depicts Marines raising the flag in the World War II battle of Iwo Jima — schoolchildren surrounded a couple of veterans to shake their hands and hear war stories.
For many of the vets, it rekindled long-dormant memories. Quentin Hindrew, 92, of Smyrna usually would rather talk about his bowling scores — he rolled a 254 just last week, he said — than his military service.
But just about anyone who shook his hand Wednesday heard how Hindrew was stationed on Okinawa when President Harry Truman ordered the atomic bomb attacks on Japan. Hindrew had been gearing up to invade.
“That atomic bomb, it saved my life,” he said.
Reginald Knight, Hindrew’s son-in-law and trip companion, said Hindrew took some convincing to go on the Honor Flight, but at 3 a.m. Wednesday he was awake and fired up to go.
“I have heard more about (his war service) in this trip than I’ve (ever) heard,” Knight said as his father-in-law told the tale to yet another stranger — his mouth spread into the widest of grins.
To contact Honor Flight Conyers about forthcoming trips to Washington: