On Wednesday, Oct. 1, a group of more than 100 veterans took part in the 17th Honor Air flight to Washington, D.C., a program that twice yearly takes groups of veterans on whirlwind, day-long trips from East Tennessee to the nation’s capital to experience the national monuments built in their honor.
Traveling with them on this trip was 88-year-old World War II vet Arch Rowe, who served in the Army from 1943 to 1946, a tour that put him on the frontlines of the war in Germany. Rowe had passed through Washington, D.C. just once before – in 1944 on his way overseas. He says things were much different this time around.
“There’s just no way to really express what it’s like,” Rowe said two days later from his apartment at Blount Memorial’s MorningView Village Senior Community. “You just have to see it to believe it. There were four busloads of us when we got there, and about 40 or 45 of us in each bus. There were 122 veterans who went – 33 from World War II and 89 from Vietnam and Korea,” he explained. “We enjoyed every bit of it,” he added.
Of what he saw, Rowe says he enjoyed the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the World War II memorial most. The pace of the trip can leave even the most-hardened veteran breathless, but Rowe says he was able to hang with it every step of the way. “All of the buses had wheelchairs on them, and you could get in one and someone would push you around. Every time we’d stop, they wanted to know if I wanted a wheelchair, but I said ‘No, I’m going to walk if I can,’ and I did. I did all of my walking. It felt like 10 miles,” he said. “I was give out, but I’m recovering now,” he laughed.
Rowe says he was well-fed on the trip. After each stop, veterans return to the bus to find snacks or treats waiting for them, something Rowe certainly appreciated. None of that came close, though, to what was waiting for him on the plane ride home. Each Honor Air flight hosts what’s known as “Mail Call” on the return trip to Knoxville. Veterans’ names are called, and each is presented with a handful of letters or cards from their friends and family members telling them how much they are loved and appreciated. For the most part, each vet gets anywhere from one to 10 cards. Arch Rowe got more than 90.
But, perhaps the most memorable part of his trip, Rowe says, was the walk through McGhee Tyson Airport after the plane landed. “That was unreal,” he said. “I don’t know how many people were there.”
Each time Honor Air vets return home, they’re met with an all-out celebration, complete with patriotic music, balloons and hundreds of people congratulating and thanking them for their service. This time, some members of the MorningView Village Senior Community staff were on-hand to welcome Rowe home.
“It was so fun,” said administrator Leslie McInturff. “We all met at the Airport Hilton, and walked over with the crowd. Everyone was lined up. There were people from his church there, and we had made a sign,” she said. “It was a great experience, and I wouldn’t have missed it.”
“That meant the world to me,” Rowe said, his voice breaking just slightly. “I had never seen anything like it, even when I came back from the war. From little kids up to 90-year-old women were standing there to shake your hand. It was great. I had never encountered anything like that before. You could see that they really, really appreciated us,” he said. “But, not as much as I appreciated them.”
“He had tears in his eyes, he really did. I had tears in my eyes, too,” McInturff said.
Rowe says he took lots of pictures to help him remember the trip. “It’s just something that’s once-in-a-lifetime,” he said. “It’s something that you have to see because there are just no words you can put on it.”