By NATHAN GREGORY
Until Sept. 25, the last time World War II and Korean War veteran John Walker had been to Washington D.C. was while he was stationed in Maryland in the early 1950s.
At that time, America was less than 10 years removed from World War II and involved in the Korean War. A memorial to honor American soldiers who gave their lives and service during World War II was erected nearly 60 years after the war’s end in 2004.
Thanks to a Mississippi-based non-profit program which honors the sacrifices soldiers made during the traumatic time, Walker and many other veterans have had the opportunity to visit the memorial.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight program organizes and sponsors free, one-day trips to the nation’s capitol so Mississippi World War II veterans can visit the site dedicated to them and the countless others who served. Walker recently benefited from this service.
The program so far has organized four flights for area World War II veterans to fly from Gulfport to D.C. for one day to visit and reflect at the memorial. They also visit the Korean War Memorial, the Iwo Jima Monument, the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight is one of more than 100 Honor Flight networks across America and is the only one of its kind in Mississippi.
Each flight carries up to 90 veterans to and from D.C. in the same day. All veterans are assigned volunteer guardians who apply for the program, participate in orientations and pay for their own round-trip flight ticket. The guide accompanies one or two of the veterans for the entire trip and sees to it that all their needs are met through the duration.
Walker and Kosciusko resident James Foster, who served in the United States Marine Corps during World War II and was injured in the battle of Okinawa, were assigned Mel Moraway, who said he was humbled to have the opportunity to serve as their guardian.
“Their individual stories show what brave men that they are. They both answered a call to duty when our county needed the exact kind of men that they are,” Moraway said. “They served with dignity and honor. I am proud to know them both.”
Walker, now 85, said he joined the Navy when he was 17 after his brother, Albert Walker Jr., was killed after his B-24 Liberator was shot down in India.
John Walker trained at the United States Naval Training Center, Bainbridge (Md.) and later earned the rank of Seaman First Class in the Gunner’s Mate Division of the U.S. Navy and was on the U.S.S. Diphda. Just after World War II he was stationed on Samar Island in the Philippines, where he spent Christmas in 1945.
During the Korean War, he was stationed at the Naval Reserve Center in Orange, Texas as well as the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he was on the U.S.S. Sage, a minesweeper.
He said he was thankful to learn about the opportunity to go back to D.C. and wants other veterans to know about the Honor Flight program so they can go as well.
“The whole idea is to get World War II veterans to see the World War II memorial. A lot of them will never see it,” John Walker said. “I probably would never have seen it I hadn’t have been with this (program). I don’t know if I ever would’ve gone back to Washington.”
Walker said he appreciated the experience of getting to see the World War II Memorial but admitted his emotions were high when he was there.
“(It will) make you teary eyed,” he said.
Walker said one of his favorite parts of the experience was the reception veterans received both when they arrived in Washington and when they came back to Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.
At Reagan International Airport, they were greeted by military personnel, including a band, who thanked them for their services in World War II.
“When we got to Washington there was a band playing for us (at the airport) and people wanting to shake your hand, (and say) ‘Thank you for your service,’” Walker said. “It gets to you.”
When they came back home, family members and military were on hand to show their appreciation. Also provided to veterans upon their return were packages of mail from both family members and children in various schools in the Gulf Coast.
One of the family members greeting Walker when he came back to Gulfport was his daughter, Sue Cherry. Cherry said the reception they received was unlike anything she had ever seen, and she had endless admiration for her father because of his bravery. Several family members also showed that admiration in letters they wrote him, she said.
“During mail call he also got letters from, they told us to get the word out to friends and family if they would like to write a note. He got lots and lots of cards and little notes from people he hadn’t heard from a long time,” she said. “I was just really excited he got to do it because he’s been wanting to do this for a long time. It was more special to go with the Mississippi group than it would have been to go in another state. I’m just proud that he got to go.”
A reunion of veterans on all four flights will be held next month in Gautier. Walker said he plans to attend and was grateful for the experience of visiting D.C. once again.
“The whole thing was hard to describe, really, what you see and being with those guys and hear some tales they told. A lot of those guys went through hell, I’d call it. If I could go (back to D.C.) tomorrow I would like to go back. It was a great experience to be with all those guys. I was really looking forward to it. I had been working on it and trying to get there,” John Walker said. “I think (veterans would) enjoy it. If they don’t ever get a chance to go on their own, this is a good way to go.”
For more information on Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight, visit http://www.mgchonorflight.org .