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Honored guests take flight

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Veterans get trip to D.C. to visit World War II Memorial

By Michel Northsea

Each of the 102 veterans on board had served in World War II. Each had a different story.

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The 102 veterans were on the second Honor Flight trip to leave from Ocala carrying Marion County veterans to Washington D.C. Each veteran on the trip wore a name tag denoting they were VIPs.

The chartered jet left around 8 a.m. Thursday for the one hour, 30-minute flight to Baltimore carrying the veterans and 70 volunteers. Once there the group was split, as per their hat color, to three different buses for a trip to the World War II monument.

From there, the veterans moved to the Korean War Memorial, had a group photograph taken at the Lincoln Memorial, saw the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery before returning to the airport and a flight back to Ocala.

Back on the ground near 10 p.m. in Ocala, the veterans were greeted with a water salute, about 200 flag carrying members of the Patriot Guard Rider and a host of family members and friends to welcome them home.

Warner Simons of Oak Run enlisted in U.S. Army Air Force with the desire to become a pilot. After completing the necessary training in Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma, he became a B-24 pilot.

Simons recalls vividly the frigid temperatures – at least 30 degree below zero -- he used to fly in and the suits they wore to combat those temperatures.

“We wore these heated suits and there were plugs everywhere,” he said explaining how the different parts of the suits plugged into each other.

Simons was assigned to the 491st Bombardment Squadron under the Eighth Air Force out of England.

His B-24, Grease Ball, was shot down north of Berlin on Nov. 26, 1944, and he was taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans. That mission had been Simons’ 16th mission.

He wasn’t alone, as the group had sent out 24 bombers that day and lost 19 of them, Simons said.

The events of that day led a Switzerland resident, John Muer, to write a book on that one day of history. The book is called, “Not Home for the Holidays.” A B-17 crashed in the village he was living in on that fateful day. Only 9 years old on that day, it was years before he wrote the book.

Simons said the book does well in describing the events of that day.

For about six months he was a prisoner of war. The Russians came through and liberated the prison camp. At first there was refusal for the prisoners to be flown out of the camp, but then finally B-17 were allowed in to take them out.

Sitting on the tarmac at the Ocala International Airport, Simons looks at his watch and predicts we’ll be in the air in 28 seconds, as the engines of the Boeing 737 prepare for take-off.

In 30 seconds the flight in the air.

“When we were loaded with nine guys and the bombs, the takeoffs could be touchy,” he recalled about those days on the B-24.

Mary Carter has a different story. She joined the U.S. Navy with the hopes of becoming a chaplain’s assistant. Learning that she had taken physics classes before she graduated from Cornell University, those in charge changed her plans.

She ended up having the responsibility of analyzing film data to determine the accuracy of bombs that were dropped.

Each veteran on the Honor Flight went at no cost to themselves. Organizers raised the estimated $75,000 to make the trip a reality for the veterans.

Morrey Deen, one of the organizers for trip, said they hope to take another flight to Washington, D.C in the spring.

Donations for the Honor Flights, and applications, are available at ocalahonorflight.org.

The Honor Flight program started in 2005. Since 2005 through 2009, close to 36,000 veterans were able to see the World War II memorial that was completed in May 2004. The Ocala flight was one of 59 scheduled in the month of October.