One hundred and one World War II veterans were milling about in the boarding area of the Asheville Regional Airport, and every one of them had a story to tell. West Asheville resident Bob Parks recalled being an Army Air Corps tail gunner stationed at Guadalcanal: “We were shot down at night, after a skip-bombing run on the Japanese fleet. Ironically, the destroyer we missed was the one that later sank John F. Kennedy’s PT-109. We made it ashore, and there was a Japanese base on the other side of the island. One of my crew members took a chance and fired a flare when we spotted some Navy B-24s flying over one night. The Navy rescued us three days later.”
The impetus for this trip down memory lane was a one-day mission to pay tribute to local veterans of the largest war in history. A project of the Rotary Club of Asheville, the Honor Air program flew the veterans, cost-free, to Washington, D.C., last Saturday to visit the World War II Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and other military landmarks before returning in the evening. Dozens of Rotary volunteers, including a physician, rode along on the chartered jet and helped guide the veterans once in the capitol.
Honor Air is something of a race against time, as many World War II veterans are in their waning years. According to a Rotary press release, veterans of that war “are passing away at a rate of about 1,000 a day.” The program aims to help as many local veterans as possible pay a visit to the World War II Memorial, which was opened in 2004.
Waiting to board the plane, the war stories poured forth. Black Mountain resident Robert Voelker told Xpress about his experience. “I was in the Army and a guard at the prisoner of war execution camp in Aversa, Italy, for about seven months,” he said. After his return, he became an industrial-building contractor. Today he has a grandson serving his second tour of duty in Afghanistan and two granddaughters—one in the National Guard and the other in military intelligence—who are scheduled to be deployed out in November.
Alice Boyce Goplerud of Asheville enlisted in the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and was a pharmacist 2nd class. She was stationed at Corona Naval Hospital in California, where she cared for the wounded from Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Philippines. “We worked hard and saw good results, in most cases,” she remembered. “I never had a patient die, though, of course, they were strong young men and healed quickly. The worst problem was jungle rot. Their skin would fall off and take months to heal.” After the war, Goplerud turned to teaching in New York schools.
Bob Haggard, president of the Rotary Club of Asheville, said his organization adopted the Honor Air effort “to show in a tangible way our deep appreciation of the veterans of World War II, whose service and sacrifice preserved the freedom we enjoy.” Another trip is planned for next May; veterans wishing to apply for trip can call 210-2430 and leave a message on the automated system.
The Rotary Club is seeking funds for additional Honor Air flights. Tax-deductible donations for the effort may be sent to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, U.S. Post 891, P.O. Box 17754, Asheville, NC, 28816-7754. Checks should be made out to VFW Honor Air Fund.