Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

November 7, 2012

Cumberland County veterans share HonorAir experience

By Gus Gocella
Sun contributor

CROSSVILLE — Honor Air Flight no. 13 began at 0430 hours at the Holiday Inn Express  Oct 3. After Sgt. Gus Gocella took “roll call,” the Premier Transportation Coach headed east to McGhee Tyson Knoxville with 24 veterans and two guardians from Cumberland County.

The group arrived at 0700 hours and was greeted by volunteer Boy Scouts taking the veterans to the Blue Team table to team Leader Charlie Harr. This day was not like any other day, but one that the veterans have been anticipating and wanted to get moving. They have been waiting for 60-70 years and finally it


At McGhee Tyson Airport, 126 World War II and Korean War Veterans had reserved seats on the US Airways A321 to Reagan International Airport in D.C. There were 70 support personnel on the plane to take care of their every need. When we arrived in D.C., we were greeted by hundreds of people — aircrews, passengers, airport workers, just ordinary folks thanking these military veterans for their sacrifices and service to the USA. Most of the well wishers were total strangers, yet embraced them as if they have known them all their lives. Handshaking, hugs, kisses with ruby red lipstick on their cheeks and foreheads made a great start for a day full of glee.

We boarded the “EYRE Tour Coaches” with our tour guide, Allyson, and driver, Matt, and started to tour the veteran’s memorials. After seven hours of visiting the memorials, we arrived up at our final stop, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, for the Changing of the Guard Ceremony.  One half hour later we departed the Tomb, silently and reverent and headed to the airport.

The coaches drove through Washington with a police motorcycle escort and arrived at the airport for a wonderful send-off. Veterans were greeted by men and women, dressed in their ‘40s clothes and invited to dance to some great jazz and jitterbug music. Many danced and others just stood there moving up and down on their happy, tired legs. More kisses and hugs and thanks were given by all. We boarded the plane, received our dinner from Arby’s, our second bag meal of the day, and settled into our reserved seats for the anticipated ride home. The veterans were pleasantly surprised to get a real old fashion “mail call” from home.  No “Dear John” letters were found, but some real nice and warm letters from the families and children in East Tennessee area were distributed. The children thanked the veterans for their courage, sacrifice and military service to this country. Not a dry eye could be found during this part of the journey.

Arriving at McGhee Tyson Airport at 2000 hours, we deplaned. We were greeted to a hero’s welcome with hundreds of people lining the exit ramp from Gate 10 to the parking garage. Central High School Band was playing WWII-era music to a festive crowd. Scouts of all ages, children with parents, motorcycle clubs, local veterans, airport workers and many previous Honor Air Veterans were lined up shaking the veterans hands, giving them hugs and thanking them for their military service and welcoming them home. It was a wonderful ending to an event-filled day and one could see it in the veteran’s faces and eyes. To share with the reader what they were feeling this day, the following quotations will try to express “in their own words” what the veterans experienced.

George Adcock, USAF, Korea, 82, said, “The whole thing was an overwhelming experience. It is truly a heart to heart and life changing experience. Thanks.”

Chuck Buchtrup, US Army, WW II, 85, said, “I particularly cherished the Air Force memorial session where we placed roses under the floral wreath commemorating the passing of a fellow Airman whose family sponsored in part this trip. The playing of the National Anthem brought goose bumps on my body and tears to my eyes. Thanks to all for making this a memory I shall never forget.” 

Bill Burgess, CDR.USN, Retired, Korea, 83, said, “The entire planning and execution of our Honor Air day was superb. The National Memorials were nostalgic.  However, having so many patriotic Americans meeting us at the airports showing their respect for the veterans, was overwhelming—even to tears.”

Earl Hagler, US Army, Korea, 79, said he was “very impressed and will always remember the people greeting us; the volunteers, military personnel, scouts, guides, park police and last by not least our travel buddies and Guardians.”

Bobby Johns, US Navy, WW II, 86, said,  “That trip could not have been any better.  I want to thank Kim Spencer, my guardian. She pushed me all day long. It was quite a different experience than anything I’ve ever been honored to participate with. The homecoming was the highlight of the whole day, due to the large crowd greeting us as we landed in Knoxville with arms waving, hand shakes and kind words for our service.”

Fenton Kelley, US Army, WW II, 87, said, “The Honor Air trip was the biggest event in my years since the Army, including my time in Europe. The most thrilling part was the crowd that lined up for our return from Washington D.C. I had tears in my eyes when I shook so many hands with so many young people from 2 years old, to teenagers and adults.”

Herb Kornguth, USAF, Korea, 79, said, “I was pleased with the bus trip to Knoxville over and back. The part I liked the best was the reception when we returned to Knoxville thanking us for serving our country.”

Lyall Lindell (Jewell), US Army, WW II, 88, said, “The trip of a lifetime started early that morning leaving Crossville on a bus driven by Ken. He was great and taking the bus to and from Knoxville was important to us. Once we got to McGhee Tyson, it was a pleasure being part of an outstandingly organized trip and it started with our lovely guardian Shanna Browning.  Picking just one thing to stand out is very difficult because from the fire truck (since I am a retired fire fighter) spraying us down as our plane was leaving both airports to seeing all the memorials. I guess if it was one, it has to be the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Changing of the Guard. It just showed so much respect for our military killed in battle. The whole trip was full of surprises, including the mail call on the flight back with letters from grade school children and my wife.  The turn out of all those people who welcomed us home was like coming home from War, all over again. I hope all those who served our country could experience this great trip. I sure did enjoy it and will always remember it. Thanks to everyone who made it possible.”

Bob Lunn, USMC, Korea, 82, said, “From the bus ride to and from Crossville to everything we did, all was great. I am still on an emotional high. I have never seen such an organization. I don’t know how you came up with all the people that met and spoiled us. Being a Marine, Korean War veteran, I really liked those memorials best. The changing of the Guard Ceremony got to me. The greeting after the trip in Washington was wonderful, but the welcome home in Knoxville had me misty eyed. It was great to meet friends and I appreciate my guardian, Rick King. I thank all who made this possible.”

George McGonagle, US Navy, WW II, 91, said, “Our trip to D.C. on Honor Air no. 13 was an outstanding experience. Our every need, wish and desire was taken care of throughout the entire day. The bus trip, the reception, our police escorts, visiting the memorials all happened like clock work. My favorite memorial was WWII and witnessing Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Mail call and the care given by our guardian, Gus, were great. The outstanding event was the huge crowd greeting us upon returning.  All of this is made possible because of one man’s idea, Eddie Mannis, and we thank him tremendously.”

Jim McGonagle, US Navy, WW II, 88, said, “Wow! You wonderful folks from Honor Air really know how to make a grown man cry. (Tears of happiness of course.)  A heartfelt thank you to the sponsors, Honor Air team leaders and staff, guardians, especially our Gus Gocella and all those volunteers that gave us their love and attention throughout our special day, which we will always cherish. Special thanks to the Central High School Band and the hundreds of caring people that came out to the airport that night to welcome us home.  Their greetings and smiling faces are what it is all about.  I really enjoyed the hug I received from Knoxville Mayor Rogero. I hope you all ‘feel the pride’ in what you did for us as we ‘feel the pride’ in what we did for you and our great country. May God hold all of you in the hollow of His hand.”

George Mellon, US Army, Korea, 84, said, “I can’t say enough about this Honor Air experience and me being part of it. Everything we were told about the trip came to light and it was all first class. I enjoyed everything, especially the send offs from Knoxville and Washington, and the receptions. The care given by our high school student guardian Jonathan Hicks was outstanding and he is a great young man. My favorite was the mail call on the airplane. Wow, what a surprise and great feeling to be so loved and thought of. Seeing the hundreds of people there when we came home was so breathtaking I just couldn’t help or stop the flowing tears. I was so happy and overwhelmed. Thanks for everything.”

James Merritt, US Army, Korea, 83, said, “This was a honor experience for me. On the trip, I met a soldier friend I hadn’t seen since I was 25 years old and during the Korean War. Wow, it doesn’t get any better than that!  This experience was ‘A’ no. 1 from the beginning to the end. The bus and plane rides were super. The food was all very good. I enjoyed the sights with my student guardian, Jonathan Hicks, a very nice young man. I would like to pass on a big thank you to Mr. Eddie Mannis and all his staff.  The welcome back home was great with all the people coming out to greet us. 

Dean Orr, USMC, WWII, 87, said, “Many thanks to all who worked so hard to make this trip so enjoyable, especially our guardian Paul Wennermark. The WWII memorial, all the fountains, Lincoln Memorial, Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Honor Air book given me were all highlights for me.”

Floyd Quick, US Navy, WW II and Korea, 85, said, “The Honor Air flight was one of the greatest experiences of my life, at least these last 20 years. Everywhere we went, we were so graciously treated. It made me proud to be an American. I would like to thank Gus, Mr. Mannis, and all the sponsors who made this possible for me to participate. This is something I will always remember.”

Jim Rich, US Army, Korea, 81, said, “I really cannot express myself in words of my feelings during and after the Honor Air flight. Everything we did that day went so smoothly. I enjoyed the entire day and what impressed me the most was the bus trip to and from Knoxville, US Airways Charter Flight to and from D.C., receptions given in D.C. but especially upon our return to Knoxville, and last, but not least, the mail call that we had on the plane ride home. Wow, tears flowed and they were tears of joy and some closure for the wars we participated in.”

Ivan Williamson, US Navy, WW II, 85, said, “A special thanks to those who organized and donated for this trip.  To Covenant Health, Premier Transportation, US Airways, Eddie Mannis of Prestige Cleaners, team leaders and guardians, for our send off from Knoxville, the fire department salutes at both airports, our reception in Washington and the welcome home in Knoxville. If I could select a memorial as the best, it would have to be the WWII and second the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”

Guardian James Ley, USAF, Knoxville, said, “The joy, interest and brotherhood I enjoyed through my experiences as a guardian with these veterans provided me comfort. My dad didn’t have such an opportunity as he passed away six years ago. When I left on my first deployment, my dad hugged me and said, ‘Go do what you have to do and then come home.’ This is what I did and these veterans did the same! You gotta love these guys!”

Paul Wennermark, guardian, USAF, Crossville, said, “Washington, D.C., is known as ‘traffic jam USA’ but our police escorts for the four tour buses were the speediest drive around downtown D.C. and the areas to the memorials that I have experienced. What a great honor given our veterans. I am elated to be part of this team.”

Gus Gocella, Guardian, USAF, Crossville, said, “I have been blessed to be associated with the ‘Greatest Generation of Americans’ through the HonorAir program. The trips to Washington, D.C., visiting the memorials and observing and interacting with the veterans give me great satisfaction just being around these heroes. I feel so grateful and thankful for getting to know them and their families. Listening to their stories and letting them tell me ‘in their own words’ makes them the writer’s of this story. I am so fortunate to be able to use this medium. Readers, send Honor Air those veterans remaining who haven’t traveled this way before taking their trip of a lifetime, and we will take them!”