When I was a child, I heard my family talk a lot about war, especially my grandparents, Rutledge Smith, "the Major," his military rank earned in the First World War, and his wife Graeme McGregor. The Major told me how his father was shot through both legs at the Battle of Chickamauga, married the nurse who saved his life and went home with her to her widowed mother in Charleston, S.C., returning to Cookeville, Tenn. five years later.
Granny Graeme was in demand as a club woman and fluent public speaker to narrate accounts of bravery by Tennessee heroes such as Andrew Jackson, David Crockett, Sam Houston and, of course, Sgt. Alvin York.
Neither of my grandparents ever smelled the smoke of battle, nor did I as a teenage soldier who volunteered near the end of World War II. My father joined late in World War I but he was in the fighting, nearly all of the worst of it, before coming home safe, but hardly sound as a pensioned victim of shell shock, an early name for PTSD.
Reflecting on these stories, and feeling something like an imposter, but assured by my friend, retired colonel Arthur Kelly of Frankfort, that I wasn't, I joined him on this year's Honor Flight. A chartered plane took a record 68 residents who served in World War II, the Korean War or Vietnam from Lexington's Bluegrass Airport on a 16 -hour whirlwind tour of Washington, D.C. to view war and military memorials erected in our honor. All were accompanied by "guardians," companions to aid and ease the old timers through a long day.
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My son Carter Hancock was my companion; Arthur's was grandson Joshua Kelly. Also on board were singers who entertained as "Ladies of Liberty," but were dressed like the Andrew Sisters of yore and sang remarkably like them.
Each of the two colonels on our flight, Arthur Kelly, 90, and Russell Reynolds, 97, were in all three wars. Reynolds was deputy commander of worldwide rescue operations and commanded the Berlin Airlift. Kelly, a native of Springfield, is the author of BATTLFIRE: Combat Stories from World War II, interviews gathered over 10 years and published by University Press of Kentucky.
Every veteran had a story, from Gordon Wilson, 98, of Paris, a B-24 pilot in Africa, China and Burma, to Paul Lewis, 90, Richmond, a Navy radioman on the Indianapolis, pulled off the ship as she weighed anchor at Guam just before she was sunk.
At the Memorial to World War II in Washington, we were greeted by former U.S. Sen. Robert Dole, gravely injured in Italy in World War II, sitting in a wheelchair near a tree planted in his honor and near a sign thanking him for his service to veterans and tireless advocacy for building the memorial that was dedicated in 2004.
As he patiently posed for scores of pictures, I introduced him to my son's daughter, Lauren, who lives in Washington and had joined us at the memorial. As they chatted, I thought of my wife Martha Helen's father, an Army colonel, a physician who died of viral pneumonia at 33 and never knew Carter or his lovely great granddaughter.
Of 306,000 Kentuckians who entered the armed services in that war, some 8,000 never returned. Among them was Franklin R. Sousely, a tobacco farmer from Fleming County who was one of six Marines raising the flag on a mountain top in Iwo Jima in a famous photo by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal. We saw the Iwo Jima monument, the Marine Corps Memorial sculpted from that picture. Sousely was killed in combat less than a month after raising the flag.
Aaron Flora, 83, Flemingsburg, a friend of Sousely who served in Korea, was on our flight. As he told one of our companions about sitting up to say goodbye to Sousely the night before he left for the Marines, he was overcome with emotion at seeing the monument, but said he was glad he came.
Welcomed back at the Lexington airport by a crowd of 1,000 or so and a kilted band of bagpipers playing My Old Kentucky Home, I think that's how we all felt: sad, but glad we came, and grateful.