Harber Hall stepped off the plane around 9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 12, at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, expecting a small crowd.
That crowd totaled 3,000.
They were there to cheer for the 80 World War II veterans who flew from Lakeland to Washington, D.C., and back that day to visit memorials in a trip organized by Honor Flight of West Central Florida, which provides all-expense paid flights for local World War II veterans to visit memorials.
“We couldn’t believe the size of the crowd that had come out there for no particular reason except to see a couple of guys getting off a plane,” Hall, 93, said.
“Correction,” said Ron Emmerman, 74, who has been Hall’s friend and neighbor at Club Longboat for six years and was Hall’s guardian for the trip. “You couldn’t believe the size of the crowd. I knew there would be a crowd. It’s an emotional and patriotic experience that affects everyone.”
Hall served in the Air Force for 14 years and reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was stationed on Guam during World War II, flying bombing missions over Japan.
Emmerman isn’t a veteran, but he previously served as a guardian for a veteran he’d never met before during an Honor Flight in March 2012. He knew there was no veteran he’d like to accompany more than Hall.
Hall’s daughter sent in an application for her father earlier this year. Emmerman, like each of the 80 guardians on the trip, had a single responsibility: Watch over his assigned veteran.
“In this case, I couldn’t keep up with my veteran,” Emmerman said.
Their journey began at 3 p.m. Monday.
That’s when Hall climbed behind the wheel of his prized 2003 green Jaguar.
“I’m driving,” he said.
Emmerman didn’t try arguing. They stayed at the Lakeland Hilton that night and played chess twice. Hall won, as usual.
At 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, their alarm rang.
By 4:15 a.m., they were at the airport. Even at that hour, there was a crowd of 300 greeters.
At 6 a.m., the Allegiant Air flight took off for Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI). They landed at 8:30 a.m., after an uneventful flight, in 30-degree weather.
They saw the Air Force Memorial first and arrived just before noon at the U.S. National World War II Memorial. They circled around the Atlantic Pavilion, which has a pillar for each of the 50 U.S. states and six territories. Hall headed for the pillar of his home state, Illinois.
“It was picturesque,” Hall said. “It was wonderful.”
They saw the Field of Stars, where each gold star represents 100 Americans who died in the war. The wall holds 4,048 gold stars.
Hall was most moved by the Korean War memorial’s bronze life-size soldiers dressed in full garb with rifles because they looked so real — as if in the middle of battle.
Then, they headed to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum for the last 45 minutes. Emmerman was so captivated by Hall’s encyclopedic knowledge of airplanes that he thought just 15 minutes had passed when he got a call from an organizer saying the bus was waiting.
They were back at BWI by 6 p.m.
But, before they boarded, an organizer announced that there would be a military-style mail call and began yelling out the last names of each veteran before handing them an envelope stuffed full of letters and cards from friends, family members, acquaintances, volunteers and school children who thanked them for their service.
Hall was the last person on and first person off the flight that night. Among the crowd gathered at the Lakeland airport was a group of veterans who stood at salute to honor the returning warriors. Hall stopped to salute every veteran gathered there — more than 100 salutes in all.
Hall’s 5-year-old son, Shepherd Harrison, held a sign that read, “My papa is a WWII hero.”
Hall agreed to let his neighbor, Ben Snyder, who rode to Lakeland with Hall’s family, take the wheel of his Jaguar for the drive home.
Hall and Emmerman had been awake for 20 hours when they got home around midnight Wednesday. But neither man was tired.
“The euphoria that takes place when you go off the plane revs up your enzymes,” Emmerman said.
Honor Flight of West Central Florida is part of the Honor Flight Network, which flies veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit memorials at no cost. The program is currently accepting applications from World War II veterans and terminally ill veterans from all wars.
More than 16,000 World War II veterans are presently on the program’s national waiting list.
To download applications, visit honorflightwcf.org.
Contact Robin Hartill at email@example.com