'Honor Flight' program sends Vancouver veterans to D.C.

Local men tour National World War II Memorial

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter


photoHarry Van Sandt

Honor Flight options

Western Washington doesn’t have an Honor Flight hub, so a veteran and companion must use an alternate program. “Lone Eagle” means up to two years on a waiting list, and the companion must donate $375. “Solo” means the veteran and guardian both must pay their own way to Washington, D.C.

Call the main office, 937-521-2400, or go to Honor Flight Network. Call Jim McLaughlin at 614-482-9031 for “Solo” or “Lone Eagle” information.

The heading on one section of the monument reads "Southwest Pacific." That was where Harry Van Sandt and Gil Stahl served during World War II.

While the two Vancouver residents posed for photographs, other veterans from across the country gathered at other spots inside the monument, looking at names of other campaigns that were fought in other corners of the globe.

The 300 or so men all were part of a recent Honor Flight tour of the National World War II Memorial. The Honor Flight program helps veterans in their 80s and 90s travel to Washington, D.C., and visit the memorial to the war they fought some 70 years ago.

"It's a humbling experience when all those people come up and greet you," Stahl said after the three-day trip.

Each WWII veteran must be accompanied by a "next generation" guardian; Stahl and Van Sandt were accompanied by two other Vancouver men, John Berg and Jim Mewhirter, who are military veterans of more recent vintage. All four men are residents of Fairway Village, in Cascade Park.

Van Sandt, 89, was a sailor on the USS Markab, a ship that supported Navy destroyers in the Pacific. Thanks to learning typing in high school, Van Sandt was assigned to yeoman's duties, working in the ship's office.

"I made up the work parties. My name never got on them," Van Sandt said with a smile.

He boarded the USS Markab in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in 1943 and wound up in Nagasaki, Japan, after the end of the war. The U.S. had dropped an atomic bomb on the city, and the Markab's skipper didn't want to hang around any longer than three days, Van Sandt said.

Stahl joined the Navy in 1945.

"I was a late-comer," Stahl said. He served on attack transports that delivered troops to support island operations and brought back wounded.

"On the cruise before me, they landed troops on Iwo Jima," Stahl, 85, said.

At the World War II Memorial, the four Vancouver men met veterans with their own stories to share.

"You see lots of Purple Hearts pinned to hats," said Berg, who accompanied Van Sandt on the trip. "One guy I was talking to said his ship was torpedoed and only nine men made it off. Six days later, only four were still alive."

Berg also talked to another veteran who had been shot while landing on Okinawa.

Berg, 64, served in the Army during the Vietnam War as a helicopter flight engineer and door gunner.

Mewhirter, 74, was Stahl's "guardian" on the trip. Mewhirter was a Marine helicopter pilot from 1960 to 1965. One of his assignments was at the University of Mississippi, where James Meredith became the first black student to attend Ole Miss. It required federal intervention.

"There were 100 Marine helicopters and 100 Army helicopters there," Mewhirter said.

While Stahl and Van Sandt traveled together to Washington, D.C., they represented two different aspects of the Honor Flight program, and neither were part of the system that sends big groups of veterans from regional chapters known as hubs.

Washington's only Honor Flight hub is in Spokane, and it doesn't serve this area; neither do any of the Oregon-based hubs. That means that veterans in Western Washington have to rely on a couple of alternate programs, said Jim McLaughlin, chairman of the Honor Flight board.

Rather than join a big group, "Harry and John went on the 'Lone Eagle' program," McLaughlin said. "The problem is, there is a two-year waiting list."

Stahl and Mewhirter went on the "Solo" program, paying for their own airfare. Once they were in Washington, D.C., the Honor Flight program covered meals, hotel and ground transportation.

At the end of 2011, there were about 14,000 people on the waiting list.

"So far, we've had between 83,000 and 84,000 veterans (from across the U.S.) participate," McLaughlin said. "We've had up to 800 to 1,000 people on a Saturday."

About 18,300 veterans took part in Honor Flight visits in 2011, McLaughlin said. If this year is similar, the program could top 100,000.

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://twitter.com/col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.