Honor Flight Board Member: WWII Veterans Now Make Up About 16% Of Participants

Jun 14, 2019

World War II veteran Sydney Levit, 94, of Aventura, Fla., left, stands with Paula Jarrett, of Honor Flight South Florida, during a sendoff celebration at Miami International Airport, Wednesday, May 22, 2019, in Miami. Levit is traveling to England where he will represent the United States as the guest of honor at the Memorial Day 75th anniversary ceremony at the Cambridge American Cemetery.
Credit Lynne Sladky / AP Photo

Last week marked the anniversary of D-Day, when American troops stormed the beaches at Normandy during World War II. The organization Honor Flight flies veterans to Washington, D.C. at no cost to them to visit war memorials. With each passing year there are fewer WWII vets to participate.

On last week’s Perspectives show on WFSU, Tom Flanigan spoke with Mac Kemp, the organization’s local chairman. Kemp gave an update on how many WWII vets participated in the most recent flight.

“Sadly, we’re down to four. The first two flights we took – of course this is our seventh flight – but the first two flights were 100 percent World War II veterans,” Kemp said. “And then it tapered off to about half along the way, but we don’t have a lot left.”

The same trend in participation has been taking place at the national level. Bill Welser is on the national Honor Flight board. A veteran of the Air Force who served for 34 years, he was also board president for Melbourne, Florida’s Honor Flight group for eight years.

“In 2017, the shift went from primarily WWII veterans, to Korea and Vietnam. And then in 2018, half of the people who were taken nationally were indeed Vietnam veterans,” Welser said. “So in 2018, of the 21,000 that were taken by Honor Flights throughout the United States, about 2,800 were WWII vets, about 7,500 were Koreans War vets, and just a little over 10,000 were Vietnam vets.”

Not surprisingly, that drop in participation is a result of there being fewer WWII vets still alive. The U.S. officially entered WWII in the last days of 1941. And Welser says that number continues to dwindle.

“We only have about 500,000 WWII veterans still with us, and we’re losing them at a pretty rapid rate of 300-some-odd a day,” Welser said.

Welser’s father was a WWII veteran. And he says regardless of a shrinking number of participants, Honor Flight is essentially a much-overdue expression of gratitude. 

“They’re on such an adrenaline high. When you think about WWII veterans who came back – 16.1 million went to fight, so everybody did it – and when they came back they got married, went to school, raised families and rebuilt America,” Welser said. “And, you know, they didn’t get a lot of congratulations for that.”

But, as Vietnam veterans continue to make up the lion’s share of Honor Flight-goers, Welser says that population faces its own set of challenges.

“We’re losing Vietnam veterans at a faster rate than WWII veterans, because there are many more of them,” Welser said. “And, you find a lot of our Vietnam veterans are in poorer health than our WWII veterans that we’re taking, because of situations like with Agent Orange.”

Agent Orange is a chemical used to clear vegetation in the jungles of Vietnam. Many times, there were soldiers occupying areas where the chemical was dropped.