Participants of the Central Missouri Honor Flight #24 had been on the go for over 24 hours. Their journey was winding down as the two buses filled with 73 veterans and more than 30 guardians traveled from the airport in St. Louis back to Columbia. When they reached Kingdom City they couldn't believe their sleepy eyes—a caravan of more than 400 motorcycles joined in to escort them home. A portion of the highway was closed to traffic, law enforcement officers were there, along with cheers from people lined up on the roadway and from the overpasses. Upon arrival in Columbia many were also greeted by members of their family. It was a heroes welcome.
Seven Macon residents, Charles Nelson, Harold Nelson, Jack Nelson, Vern Macklin, Willard Mangelsen, Robert Klingenberg and Craig Pettibone were on that honor flight.
"I couldn't believe the reception we got when we returned," said Charles Nelson, the only WWII veteran and career military man in the group.
"The whole trip was way beyond my expectations. It was an adventure of a lifetime."
"It was quite a day. Everywhere we went we had a wonderful reception, people wanting to shake our hands" said Klingenberg, a Korean War veteran. "So different from the reception we had when we came home after the war. People were like, 'Ho Hum, So What?' It was called the 'Forgotten War'."
The Honor Flight is a jam-packed 24 hours filled with visits to the WWII Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Battle of Iwo Jima Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
"I enjoyed all the memorials, but my favorite was probably the Korean Memorial," said Korean Veteran Mangelsen. "It is a different type of monument. It looks so real. It is like those guys are right there walking through the rice paddy in their rain ponchos."
"It sure was a good trip," he said. "We laughed, it was kind of like being in the war, because we were kept on the move and and didn't have time to sleep."
Jack Nelson, another Korean War Veteran agrees. "I think I went about 40 hours without any sleep," he said. "Everything on the trip was wonderful. I can't think of one thing that I would change about it. The best part for me was that it wasn't anything to do with government. It was all made possible through contributions."
The veterans do not pay to go on the Honor Flight.
"I didn't spend one red cent on the whole trip," said Jack. "They paid for everything. I had been there three times before, but this trip had a different meaning."
It was the first trip to Washington D.C. for Macklin, who served state-side during the Korean War. "I was so excited, I didn't get any sleep the day before we went," he said. "It was well organized, we didn't waste any time. We were well taken care of. It was unbelievable, they treated us all like royalty."
Page 2 of 3 - For Pettibone, the trip was his second visit to D.C. "It had been over 20 years since I had been there, but this was one of the best trips I have ever been on," said the Korean War Veteran. "The planning was tremendous, everything was taken care of. Before, during and after, it was all fantastic."
Harold Nelson, younger brother of Charles, served for nine months of combat in the Korean War. "It was bad over there," he said. "Now, coming back from the Honor Flight 60 years later, we are getting more attention than we did then. It kind of makes you feel good. It was nice to come home to all the motorcycles and Highway Patrol escorts. It kind of gives you chills up your back. It got to my heart."
The Nelson brothers were among three sets of brothers on the Honor Flight.
Charles read a story in the paper about another area veteran from Atlanta who had gone on an Honor Flight and told Harold about a year ago that they should do it.
"This year Harold asked me if I still wanted to go and I said, 'Let's do it,'" said Charles. "It was extra special to have him on the trip too. I wouldn't trade going on the trip for anything, they treated us like we were the President."
Mike Miller of Macon served as Guardian for the Nelson brothers on the trip. This was the 6th time he has made the trek as a Guardian. Guardians assist where needed with wheelchairs, walkers, oxygen and offer companionship on the journey. A trained medical team also travels as part of the group.
"I just like going," said Miller, a veteran himself. "To see their faces and hear them talk about their experiences afterward is very special. This is something they deserve, something that should have been done a long time ago."
Miller estimates that there are only around two and a half million WWII and Korean War Veterans still living. WWII veterans who apply for an Honor Flight are given first priority and will be put on the next available trip. Korean War Veterans will go on a waiting list for upcoming flights.
"They all did something for us," he said. "The Honor Flight is something we can do for them."
"I asked Mike what I could do to help pay back for the experience," said Jack. "And he told me just to help get the word out and tell more WWII and Korean War Veterans about the Honor Flight."
All the veterans agree it was a very exhilarating, tiring and emotional experience.
"I would do it all over again," said Jack. "But maybe would have to have a day or more to rest."
Page 3 of 3 - "The 24 plus hours is a long time to go without sleep, but you are so excited that you don't feel it," said Pettibone.
"I would recommend that anyone go if they have the opportunity to do so," said Harold.
Any veteran who would like more information on how to sign up for an Honor Flight may contact Miller at Consolidated Insurance in Macon at 660-385-2827 or the Central Missouri Honor Flight in Columbia at 573-289-3799.
On Sunday afternoon, Sept. 8, the group will get to go back to Columbia for a get-together to reminisce a little about their experience.
"A professional photographer followed us on the trip and took pictures," said Klingenberg. "They are supposed to have a DVD of photos for each of us. I've heard that the Honor Flight in Columbia is one of the best in the state, but I think it is one of the best in the nation."