Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Gilbert “Choc” Charleston and Robert Heatley, who rolled through Europe in tanks during World War II, will be flying together in May to see the National World War II Memorial for the first time.
Charleston and Heatley, both 87, will be making the trip thanks to Oklahoma Honor Flights, a privately funded effort to fly World War II service members and other veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit national monuments and memorials dedicated to their service.
The group organized two flights last year and plans to have two more flights this year.
Efforts are under way to raise money to pay for a third flight. Each flight costs about $100,000 to send about 100 veterans and 60 volunteer assistants on the one-day, round-trip flight.
Charleston, who drove a U.S. Army tank in France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany, said he will be making the trip in May to honor the men in his company. Of 127 members, only 15 remain living.
“I’m representing the group of men that I served with,” said Charleston, of Oklahoma City.
Heatley, of Oklahoma City, served in an Army tank group that fought in Italy. He took part in four major campaigns in Italy; he later served in Korea.
“The thing that appeals to me is to pay respect to those comrades that gave everything,” said Heatley, whose tank group suffered 85 percent casualties, with half of them fatalities.
“We were fighting against an SS tank unit, which stopped us every time,” he said. “Our armor-piercing would bounce off the German tanks. Theirs would shoot completely through ours.
“We had more gasoline, and we had more tanks. We just outmaneuvered them.”
City, Tulsa flights set
Charleston and Heatley are scheduled to go on a flight May 4 that will depart from Will Rogers World Airport. Another flight is scheduled for June 8 that will depart from Tulsa International Airport. If enough money can be raised, a third flight will take place Oct. 12, said state Rep. Gary Banz, R-Midwest City, co-chairman of Oklahoma Honor Flights.
“It’s such a terrific organization to have the Oklahoma Honor Flights to give our veterans a chance to be able to go Washington, D.C., to see the tremendous monument and not only remember the past but to honor the future of our veterans and to keep alive the memory of the sacrifices that have been made by our veterans over so many years,” Gov. Mary Fallin said during a news conference to publicize the flights.
“We can never fully repay you for your service, but this is one of the things that we can do to honor you,” Fallin said.
Banz said 16 million Americans were in uniform during World War II; less than 3 million are still alive today, and it’s estimated about 1,000 are dying each day nationally. It’s estimated about 60,000 World War II veterans live in Oklahoma.
“That window of opportunity for us to say thanks is closing very rapidly,” Banz said. “We don’t have very long to act on their behalf.”
The waiting list
In Oklahoma, 415 are on the waiting list to take an honor flight, Banz said. On the May trip, 101 veterans are scheduled to take part, and a similar number will make the June trip.
Having a third trip would reduce the waiting list below 100, but he expects the waiting list to grow as veterans hear about the opportunity.
In addition to seeing the National World War II Memorial, the veterans will visit the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Iwo Jima Memorial before watching the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery and heading home.
Ed Vezey, 90, a USS Oklahoma survivor who lives in Moore, made the initial flight last year. It was an emotional trip for the veterans, many of whom would not have made the trip if not for the Honor Flights program.
“You don’t realize how many pent-up tensions you still have from serious stuff a long time ago,” Vezey said. “That day brings them all back. I lost a lot of shipmates. I lost my roommate at Pearl Harbor. You keep all those things away — there’s no closure on some of those things. You kind of submerge them.”
Homer Williams, 84, who served in the Merchant Marine, made the October flight.
“It was one of the most awesome experiences that I ever had in my life,” said Williams, of Midwest City. “I can’t think of anything that’s ever happened to me that was more gratifying.”