Memories of Honor Flight trip to World War II Memorial will last a lifetime

This story and photo were published in the Hannibal Courier-Post (MO) - Wednesday, May 12, 2010. Dr. Richard Draper, left, and his father, Homer Draper, right. DRAPER FAMILY PHOTO

Author: RICHARD E. DRAPER For the Courier-Post, Hannibal Courier-Post

Dr. Richard E. Draper , (former)

medical director for Hannibal Regional Medical Group, accompanied his father, Homer Draper , on an Honor Flight trip to see the World War II Monument in Washington, D.C., on April 13, 2010. He wrote a journal of the trip, which he is sharing with this newspaper's readers.

This journey in our family, began several months ago when my wife Sheri saw an article in the local newspaper that described the upcoming Honor Flight as a program that honored World War II veterans by taking veterans on an all-expenses paid trip on a whirlwind tour of the World War II Memorial, and other monuments, in Washington D.C.

At first, Dad did not have the slightest interest in such a trip. I went ahead and filled out his application anyway because I thought he might rescend his decision. As more and more publicity began to appear in the local newspaper and television he seemed to get at least a little bit excited. When we received notification that he had been approved to be a member of the first flight, he smiled and shook his head like he does when he is pleased. A local attorney, whom I am relentless with in harassing him about the University of Oklahoma beating the University of Missouri almost every time they play in football, was the program director. When he met my dad at the preflight meeting, he teased Dad about the OU hat he was wearing. What is significant about this was that Dad had not related well to people in quite some time, but tonight he was laughing and interacting with people.

There was a pre-flight meeting during which the veterans going on the trip as well as the guardians chosen, viewed a slide show about the program and the upcoming trip. After the introduction, they separated the guardians from the veterans and had further orientation for both groups. I learned that as a guardian that my responsibilities would also include the safety and comfort of a veteran in addition to my father. I would provide emergency medical care, along with another physician, who also accompanied his father. As a group these gentleman and one lady represented a spectrum of general health. When they had roll call, the veterans answered with conviction and strength as if they were 18 years old all over again. The sense of pride and excitement in that room was palpable. One thing I noticed was that Dad was taking careful notes. I had planned on sending my siblings the itinerary for the trip but by the time I got to my computer later that evening, Dad had scooped me. He is 89, but he communicates with his family and friends by email.

Monday evening I went to bed at 2000 hours. I woke at 0100 hours and got ready for the trip. The plan was to pick up two other veterans and schlep them to the hotel. I was a little worried that they would be late, but they had been waiting for 15 minutes already when I got there at 0200 hours.

We arrived at the hotel and we were all fed breakfast prepared by one of the local churches. There were volunteers scurrying everywhere. The excitement was evident and the veterans were getting to know each other. Thirty seven of them made the trip. We boarded the bus over a 20-minute period and the bus departed exactly at 0330 hours. The bus was quiet as we pulled out of town. About an hour south of Hannibal one of the veterans developed a nosebleed. There was another doctor on the trip but he was not an emergency room doctor and as such did not have training in treating acute nosebleeds. When I got to the bus's bathroom there was so much blood it looked as if someone had been slaughtering hogs. As I took care of business and treated a nosebleed I said to myself, "and so it begins." Fortunately no one else had any type of health issues requiring treatment for the rest of the trip. No one fell, no one was injured, no one had chest pain, and no one had shortness of breath.

When we arrived at St. Louis international Airport we were taken to a closed security section of the airport and we all went through security expeditiously. The veterans did not have to remove her shoes. When dad was going through the metal detector he set it off and this was despite my having relieved him of anything remotely metallic. After the fourth time the TSA officer turned to ask someone a question and when she turned back around dad had wandered off to retrieve his possessions that had been scanned. The officer just smiled and turned her attention to the next veteran. They kept triggering the metal detectors.

The convoy then moved to the gate where we waited for about 30 minutes before boarding the plane. Southwest Airlines has a lot of experience with the Honor Flight program and knew how to make the veterans feel at home. Before we boarded they announced a very special group of men and women were on our flight as World War II veterans and asked everyone for applause. Applause emanated from all over the terminal. It was impressive and seemed like a crowd at a sporting event. The veterans were looking about in amazement. The veterans were allowed to board the plane before anyone else. When the rest of the passengers boarded the plane, every one of them said: "Thank you for your service to our country," shook their hands, or patted them on the shoulders as they passed by. I think a few of them even got pecks on the cheek. They were feeling mighty fine by this point. The captain came back and visited with the group before the plane took off and shot the breeze with the veterans. He was a Desert Storm pilot veteran. He later announced the presence of his special passengers over the loudspeaker.

The flight to Baltimore was about two hours. Hardly any of them got up to go to the bathroom and I can tell why. They had not taken hardly any fluids since they boarded because it seemed as if the one who had to go to the bathroom first was a wimp. We flew in to Baltimore because Southwest Airlines doesn't land at Reagan International. They do land at Dulles but the distance to D.C. is about the same and the former is much more congested.

We boarded another bus for a 45-minute trip to Washington D.C. For many of these veterans, myself included, they had never been to our nation's capital. There were many things to look an en route to the World War II Memorial, a visual feast, and I thought they would snap their necks as they were craning so much to take it all in. During the bus ride they showed a video on the history of the World War II Memorial, including its planning and construction. A large part of it was funded by private donations. I remember Tom Hanks requesting donations on television several years ago. There was apparently a lot of disagreement about the site of the memorial because many felt that it would harm the aesthetic integrity of the mall. Do you remember when Forest Gump was addressing the war protestors at the reflecting pool of the Lincoln Memorial? Where he stood on the podium is where they built the monument. Of course, Forest Gump had nothing to do with choosing the site!

As the veterans began to get off the bus, it began to mist and then to rain. The trip planners had supplied us with rain ponchos for such a development. By the time I had "ponched" my two veterans, I was soaking wet. It didn't matter. We carefully scouted the monument defined the columns for Missouri, Alabama, and of course Oklahoma. I took pictures of Dad and his friend at their respective states. All during this time and since we departed I had been taking pictures with my Blackberry and sending them to the local newspaper. Mary Lou Montgomery with the Courier-Post and I had made these arrangements several weeks ago. The plan was to put these pictures on the newspaper's Web site along with a description of how the day was going. This would occur in real time and families and interested parties everywhere would be able to follow the progress of the trip. This went well until I drained my battery with all the pictures I was transmitting. The general manager of a Quincy television station, WGEM's Carlos Fernandez, loaned me his Blackberry so I could continue to transmit pictures. Interestingly there was a reporter and cameraman from WGEM in Quincy who documented the trip for the television station. In fact they are uploading videos and pictures of the trip all this week. I drained his battery, too.

We decided as a group to push on as the weather turned miserable and everyone was cold and damp. Because we had an extra hour or two, we were taken on a very thorough bus tour of Washington's biggest sites. This was grand and we enjoyed seeing dozens of sites.

We passed by the church where all the newly sworn-in presidents attend. I don't know who the first was, but there's a long chain of them.

We saw the Iwo Jima monument, which is like Mecca to a Marine. There was only one Marine on the bus and he was one of the guardians, and Iraq veteran Marine sniper. It looked as if the bus would not be able to stop at the monument. When we got to the monument for the drive-by the veterans told the driver to pull over they were going to visit the monument. And so they did, just for a brother.

We were then taken to an area close to the Korean, Vietnam, and Lincoln monuments. There for 45 minutes. Most of the veterans remained on the bus because they were cold. I took one of the veterans, Gene Maddox, who wanted to see the Lincoln monument and we walked in the rain quickly to the monument. It was very moving to be in the same place where Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream! " speech. You could look south of the Lincoln Memorial all the way to the World War II Memorial on the other side of the reflecting pool. Some of the other veterans visited the Korean War Monument. It was hauntingly beautiful. It consists of a platoon of Korean War soldiers advancing through a field. It looks like the real thing and it's reported that during the winter when snow has fallen it is seen as incredibly realistic. The Vietnam Memorial was too far away to visit in the time allotted.

Gene and I purchased coffee for Dad and ourselves and reboarded the bus. We were fed lunch on board the bus and headed for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On Arlington's grounds, they became somber and quiet. There are 300,000 veterans buried there, including one of my medical school classmates, a Viet Nam era pilot. We were all humbled by being in their presence. The veterans seemed to acknowledge their fallen comrades by brief nods as we drove along. We thought at first that the changing of the guard occurred hourly, then we discovered that he was every 30 minutes. We found Audie Murphy's grave, pointed out by a Marine on the bus. A monument with the mast of the battleship U.S.S. Maine was located not too far from his resting place. Also, in very close proximity is the Memorial to the Astronauts of the Challenger disaster.

At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier there is a large amphitheater that you see when you drive up to the monument. The tomb is behind the amphitheater. Actually, we probably came onto the property from the back. There was surprisingly a large crowd present but we were able to secure excellent viewing because of the wheelchairs in our company. I have read that the Armed Forces representatives of the changing of the guard detail are exceptional individuals and represent the quintessential military figure. This turned out to be exactly the case. The straight, trim, and immaculately dressed soldiers were something to behold. They had precision, professionalism and spirit. Pride of our country welled up from within all of us.

After the ceremony, Dad and I took off to a different path and came upon a grave excavation. They were using a device much like a hay lift to transfer the grave dirt to a waiting truck. One thing that surprised me was the topography in many parts of Arlington. The area where we were was quite hilly. Wherever we went the grounds were immaculate.

On the way out of Arlington we came to an intersection. To our immediate right was the monument dedicated to the women veterans of World War II. Dad had donated to the monument's construction and had asked multiple times throughout the day if there was any way we would be able to see this monument. We just didn't know if it would be possible. The bus pulled up to the curb. A security guard walked up and said it would not be possible for anyone to view the monument because of security. Carlos chatted with the guard as to why his request was unusual, that one of the veteran's wives had been a WWII veteran. We were requesting exception, he said, and that it would take him a few minutes to make up his mind. He smiled and just walked off. They let us off the bus and the bus pulled out of the security area. We weren't there for very long but we were able to take some great pictures. This was closure for Dad in another thing.

Quickly our travels in Washington D.C. were coming to a close. Our bus driver, a 25-year veteran who had served in Viet Nam, pointed the vehicle back towards Baltimore's Airport. We had not completed viewing the video about the World War II Memorial, so we finished that up before we got to the terminal. It was late in the afternoon and the shadows were lengthening but I could clearly see many veterans just staring out the window in silent reflection. I would love to have known what they were thinking about but I would imagine they were on a battle-strewn beach, the woods of the Argonne Forest, the jungles of the Pacific theater, or a hospital bed. They may have been remembering those who hadn't been able to come home from the war. Some of the veterans had caps that indicated they had been Purple Heart recipients, but none of them ever talked about their injuries on the trip that I know of. They did, however, openly share many experiences from the war. For some of them this was the first time they had openly expressed their feelings about their experiences. As I listened to my own father speak, the respect I have for him grew even more.

Everyone kept speaking about how wonderful the trip had been, incredible amount of work that it must have taken to make something like this trip work, and the sheer number of things they had witnessed all through the day.

On the way from Baltimore to the St. Louis Airport, they had mail call. They all acknowledged among themselves that mail call had been one of the most cherished parts of their tours. My son-in-law is on active duty with the 82nd airborne and Iraq. He and my daughter speak to each other almost every day. If that isn't possible , then are usually able to exchange e-mails. Before he was deployed, they asked my dad how he and Krista's grandmother had been able to cope with the prolonged separation. He replied that it was most difficult because they often went up to three months without any type of communication; all the while his wife was reading or listening to the newspaper, radio, and news reel reports of the carnage of the war. The veterans were astonished to discover that not only had many family members written letters to convey their respect and appreciation for their efforts on behalf of the country, but many high school and grade school students had written letters to people they had never met. This touched many of them deeply. It was so intense that many of them chose not to read the letters until they were in private. Such was the case with my father. He had more than 20 letters and has painstakingly answered each and every one of them, even the letters from children.

Once in St. Louis, there were many family members of the veterans who surprised them at the terminal. Many tears were shared that seemed somehow to transcend the experiences of the trip. I felt the looks on their faces indicated closure of things long past.

Three motorcycle escorts had waited in St. Louis all day to lead this group back to Hannibal. The veterans chatted on the way back to Hannibal like a bunch of high school kids returning from a victorious athletic event. This was in stark contrast to the deafening silence that permeated the departure. As we passed through Bowling Green, Carlos Fernandez instructed the veterans to look to the right as we passed under an overpass, there lined up on the entrance ramp were 48 motorcycles (we know that to be accurate because almost every one on the bus counted them as they roared past the bus to assume their positions in the procession. There were also six or more Highway Patrol and Sheriff's squad cars that preceded the motorcyclists, who drove in a 2x2 formation. Their flashers were blinking and the emergency vehicles were flashing red and blue lights. The entourage stretched out over half a mile or more. In the dark it looked look like a giant centipede moving and twisting down the road. We later learned there were two Highway Patrol cars following us to prevent traffic from overtaking the convoy. Our veterans couldn't stop talking about all the motorcycles. They'd smile whenever a Harley would fly by. It was most impressive. So the excitement continued to build and any trace of weariness was gone.

At last we were home. As we rolled onto the hotel property there were hundreds of people everywhere screaming, cheering, and welcoming us home. The fire department had extended a ladder extension high into the night sky and on the end flew a giant Stars and Stripes, lit up by spotlights. I'm getting goose bumps recalling this. The bus shut down and the crown quickly enveloped the bus. The door opened, people cheered even more. Then one of the guardians, a Marine veteran of Iraq, positioned himself at the door. My dad was the first one off the bus. The guardian carefully helped him down and announced in a loud, obviously drill sergeant-type voice so as to be heard above the din: "Homer Draper , U.S. Army, World War II!" And the crown went wild. This was repeated for each and every World War II veteran who disembarked. It took 30 minutes to get off the bus and as each veteran entered the crowd, people were patting them affectionately on the back, hugging them, and thanking them for their sacrifices. There wasn't a dry eye in sight. Again, more closure. My dad's new attorney friend chided him that, "I had hoped you might lose your (Oklahoma) hat while you were gone!" When my dad watched a video of the veterans leaving the bus, he quipped, "Not many 18-year-olds on that bus!"

As I drove him back home, he was a chatterbox. I have never heard him speak so animatedly or with such excitement. It has been three weeks since the trip and he hasn't stopped talking yet. His neighbors at Pleasant View have remarked how the trip has changed my father. While he was quiet and respectful, he had not spoken much since he has moved to Hannibal last year. There is now a sparkle in his eyes and as he walks through the day, he does so a bit straighter and with more purpose than he did before.

I have to say that it indeed was a privilege to be part of this experience. One of the wishes I had for the trip for myself was that some of her spirit would somehow transfer to those who accompanied them.

I feel not only closer to my father but to the men and women who so graciously gave of themselves to protect America. They did so without fanfare, without expectations of reward or recognition. It is time that we acknowledge their accomplishments while we can, because they are leaving us at the rate of 1,200 or more per day. Years from now, I pray that we will continue to honor them by the way we face the challenges of the future, believe in our country, and prepare for the next generation of soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors.

Homer Lane Draper

Hannibal Courier-Post (MO) - Friday, December 14, 2012

Homer Lane Draper, 91, formerly of Bartlesville, Oklahoma Homer Lane Draper , age 91, formerly of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, passed away on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, in Hannibal, Missouri.

The son of Richard Homer Draper and Pearl (Lane) Draper , Homer was born January 22, 1921, in Decatur, Alabama. He was a WW II Veteran, with the Army Corps of Engineers in North Africa and Italy. Homer married Oklahoma City native Annamarie Warnke, on March 15, 1944, in Foggia, Italy.

After the war, he graduated from Tri-State Engneering College, Angola, Indiana. He was a registered professional (mechanical) engineer with Phillips Petroleum Company, in Bartlesville, OK. He authored 20 technical papers and was granted 25 U.S. patents in petroleum engineering. Homer was a member of the Highland Park Baptist Church, a member of the charter flight of Missouri's Great River Honor Flight in 2010, a 50-year Master Mason and a member of the York Rite.

Homer was preceded in death by wife, Anne in 1991; his parents, Richard and Pearl Draper ; sister Mildred Wall; and brothers Paul and Robert. He is survived by his children Kathryn Swan and husband Jim of Pawhuska, Dr. Richard Draper and wife Sheri of Hannibal, MO, John Draper of Tulsa, Phyllis Stott and husband Robert of Sulfur, LA; ten grandchildren and six great grandchildren.

Graveside services will be held 2 p.m. Friday in Bartlesville at the Memorial Park Cemetery. Pastor Kathy Morris will officiate. Local arrangements are under the direction of the Neekamp Funeral Home, Bartlesville. Online condolences may be left at www.honoringmemories.com

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