Flight of honor

red, white and blue rally erupted inside the Indianapolis International Airport as a small band of World War II veterans and their escorts made their way through the terminal.

Nearly 3,000 people packed into the civic plaza, holding flags, balloons and “welcome home” signs. They cheered and snapped photos.

For a moment, Paul McClure flashed back to 1945, pulling into New York harbor on a transport ship after the war ended.

“All the people there to greet us, it was just like that. I hadn’t thought about that for 70 years,” he said.

McClure was one of 70 men and women who took the Indy Honor Flight this month. The nonprofit organization pays for World War II veterans to take guided trips to Washington, D.C., to see the memorial built to commemorate their service.

At every stop, the veterans were cheered, thanked and celebrated. They were given letters from Indiana schoolchildren and government leaders.

Indy Honor Flight was based on similar honor flight programs from around the country. The goal is to help fly veterans to see the World War II Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial and other landmarks.

The trips are paid for by donors, and the veterans are not required to cover their transportation, their meals or any aspect of the flight. Indy Honor Flights raises about $30,000 to cover all of the veterans’ costs for one flight.

More than 900 World War II veterans die every day, organizers said, so it’s important to make sure the surviving ones are honored for their service and shown how much their sacrifices are appreciated.

McClure found out about the Indy Honor Flight program when founder Grant Thompson spoke at the Rotary Club of Indianapolis, where he is a member. The more he learned about the trip, the more he wanted to be involved.

“I’d never been to the World War II Memorial. It was just an honor to be able to go,” he said.

McClure served in the U.S. Army, reaching the rank of sergeant with the 260th Infantry. He specialized in electronics and radios and helped lead the communications division from France to Belgium and into Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

“I had a walking tour of Europe,” he said.

Communication was essential for the success of the troops, so McClure and his fellow soldiers were often under fire. His unit was one that liberated the Ohrdruf concentration camp in Germany.

McClure recalled discovering the horrors of the camp and gathering the residents of the nearby town to march them through the camp and see the atrocities.

For his bravery, McClure was awarded a Bronze Star, as well as the combat infantryman badge of his service in the infantry. But McClure said he was just doing his duty.

‘True American greatness’

But for Indy Honor Flight officials and the volunteers who help, the veterans’ service was something extraordinary.

“They’re the greatest generation. What they did, the sacrifice they made. They came home and didn’t ask for anything. When they were gone, the women were working,” said Scott Alspach, a New Whiteland resident and volunteer for the Indy Honor Flight.

For every Honor Flight taken, each veteran is paired with an escort. These volunteers are charged with ensuring the veterans have a perfect day, whether that means taking photographs, carrying items that the veterans don’t need or pushing them in a wheelchair through the memorials.

Alspach and his wife, Maribeth, were both guardians for the April 5 Indy Honor Flight. They decided to sign up for the program because of their long-held support for area veterans.

Maribeth Alspach was chosen to be McClure’s escort. Scott Alspach’s veteran was Thomas Jones, 86, from Vincennes.

The Alspachs were responsible for making sure that both men made it to a meet-and-greet banquet the night before their flight, as well as getting them to the airport early on April 5. They rode with the veterans on the plane then helped them board three chartered buses that would take them all over Washington.

“We were traveling in the vicinity of true American greatness,” Maribeth Alspach said. “The sad thing is that they’re dying, and we’re losing all of their stories.”

At each stop, cheering crowds greeted the veterans, who wore special T-shirts identifying their service. People shook their hands and asked for pictures with them in front of the memorial.

McClure’s son and daughter both live near Washington and met him for the day at the World War II Memorial.

‘Absolute royal treatment’

Each guardian received a photograph of the veteran from his or her days in the military. Those photographs were enlarged to poster size, and when the veterans walked through the airport or posed in front of the memorials, people held the photo up behind them.

“We got the absolute royal treatment wherever we went,” McClure said. “They do such a good job to make sure we don’t have to worry about anything for the entire day.”

Upon arriving at Indianapolis International Airport, the group was met by the largest crowd yet. Veterans’ families and friends packed the arrival gate to cheer their heroes on.

McClure’s granddaughter and one of his good friends were in the crowd, holding signs that read, “We’re Proud of You.”

“I think I shook hands with 500 people,” he said. “That got to me.”

The trip is something that he will never forget, McClure said. The mementos of the experience are all around his home, from photographs on his table to the U.S. Army veteran hat he wore.

In an envelope, he keeps letters given to him by both strangers and people close to him, thanking him for his services. Children had used construction paper, markers and crayons to make patriotic notes of support.

“Thank you for serving your country. You are awesome,” read one letter. Another said, “Veterans rock. You are very strong,” with the drawing of a soldier with big biceps.

Reading through each note brings the rush of the flight back to him each time.

“I’m still not back down to earth yet,” he said.

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Indy Honor Flights

What: A nonprofit organization that pays to fly World War II veterans to Washington to see the memorial to their service, as well as other attractions such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.

When: Flights this year are scheduled for May 10, with the hope to do two trips in the fall, though dates haven’t been set.

How can veterans get involved: The May 10 flight is full; applications for the fall trips can be found online at indyhonorflights.org/applications, by writing to 9093 S. State Road 39, Mooresville, IN 46158, or by calling Grant Thompson at 539-5625.

Any World War II veteran or terminally ill veteran of other wars can apply for the flights.

Guardians: Applications are also being accepted for guardians to escort the veterans on the trip. Duties include physically assisting the veteran at the airport, during the flight and at the memorials. Guardians are responsible for their expenses.

Information: 559-1600, www.indyhonorflight.org

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“We got the absolute royal treatment wherever we went. They do such a good job to make sure we don’t have to worry about anything for the entire day.”

World War II veteran Paul McClure on his Indy Honor Flight experience