Andy Rieger

Special to the Grove Sun

WASHINGTON, D.C. (OPA) - Armon Pittman knew just what to do if the Oklahoma Honor Flight charter jet couldn’t drop its nose wheel. Just have the crew quickly move to the rear of the plane and the weight shift will allow the plane to glide in for a safe landing.

After all, it worked on his crew’s B-24 65 years ago when they experienced landing gear failure Sept. 21, 1945, after returning to Okinawa after a run to Tokyo. The same principle ought to work on a 737 jet.

“I don’t remember who thought of it but we all got in the center of the plane and when we touched down, one pilot stayed up front and the rest of us ran to the back of the plane and somehow it worked and we lived,” said

Pittman, 87, the plane’s tail gunner of Tulsa.

His story and hundreds more were shared among the 99 World War II veterans and their “guardians” aboard the state’s second Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., this week. The organization, one of more than 30 nationwide, hopes to take the state’s veterans on free flights to the Capitol to see the monuments honoring their war-time sacrifice and those of 400,000 Americans who never returned.

“It’s fantastic. That’s a lot of granite,” Pittman said. “But really, we didn’t need a memorial when we came home. We just wanted to get home and get to work.”

Three chartered buses carrying the tour left under a firefighters’ ladder arch from Midwest City’s Reed Center before sunrise Tuesday, Oct. 12, and returned after midnight, giving the Veterans and their caregivers a 21-hour day packed with visits to the World War II, Korea and Vietnam memorials and

a changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington Cemetery.

They were assisted in Oklahoma City and at the Baltimore airport by active members of the military who literally carried some of the Veterans from the planes and put them on buses with Honor Flight volunteers.

True to their nature, no complaints were heard on board buses or the chartered jet. Some were dancing in the aisles with flight attendants. To the men, all had been through much more stressful times. One man, Jack Vaughn of Elk City, endured 511 days of combat. “This is nothing,” one said.

Schoolchildren presented the Veterans with commemorative coins at a Rose State College reception and send-off Monday evening. In exchange, the Vets gave the kids copies of the Constitution.

“Students, you are among 99 living history textbooks,” said Honor Flights committee chairman Gary Banz, a state representative from Midwest City. “I hope you realize how important that is.”

It took nearly 60 years for the nation to recognize the need and build the massive World War II memorial. Planning began in 1993, construction began in 2001 and it was dedicated on May 29, 2004. More than 16 million answered their nation’s call to service with about 3 million still living. Officials estimate the nation loses about 1,000 World War II veterans a day. “World War II vets don’t like to talk about their experiences,” said Pittman, who was a college student in Stillwater when the Japanese bombed

Pearl Harbor in 1941. “But I wouldn’t trade anything in the world for this experience.”

He wanted to fly P-38s but was trained as a tail gunner. After they returned from a mission, they got two ounces of bourbon.

“We’d save it in a pint bottle and when we all got them full, we’d have a party,” Pittman said. “None of us ever worried about not coming back. We just didn’t think about it.”

James Goodrich, 84, of Enid, fudged on his admitted age and joined the Marines at 16. He was wounded on day 22 of the battle of Iwo Jima. He was accompanied Tuesday by Enid physician Dr. Brian Whitson. The two also journeyed in 2009 to Iwo Jima.

“It was nice to go back and see the island without anybody shooting at you,” Goodrich recalled.

Of the 250 men in his company, only 22 walked off the island. “Not very good odds,” he said.

Like most of the Oklahoma veterans, Glyndale Ray, of Norman, a USMC Veteran, had never seen the World War II memorial. At age 84, he didn’t know if he would able to get there.

“I’m looking forward to this trip. I’m just proud to get to go,” he said.

Charles Peters, 91, of Norman, agreed. “I think it’s beautiful,” he said of the memorial. He served in the Army’s 91st Division from 1941 to 1946.

“Everyone should see it. It’s a patriotic thing.”

Robert W. Powell, 89, of Tulsa, learned to fly sailplanes in Tulsa. He tried, however, to keep his skill sets unknown because he wanted to be a radio operator.

“Someone turned me in and it turns out that particular year - 1942 - they needed glider pilots more than they needed radio operators,” said Powell. He spent 27 years in the Army Air Corps and later the U.S. Air Force, participating in World War II and the Berlin Airlift, Korea and Vietnam.

Leland Weichbrodt, 86, of Oklahoma City, surveyed the memorial with his guardian Dave White of Deer Creek.

“It sure is impressive,” he said.

Many posed for photographs in front of the Oklahoma pillar. U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, greeted the Vets before a group photo was taken.

Teddy Melton, 84, of Grove, a retired truck driver, had driven through Washington many times. But Tuesday was the first time he was able to leave the highway.

“I didn’t ever get to see it before. I wanted to, but I was watching the highway,” he said. “It’s impressive. I’m glad to get to see it and this is the ideal spot for it.”

Melton was stationed aboard the U.S.S. Alaska in the Pacific Theater. He recalls being at Hiroshima the day before the atomic bomb was dropped.

“We were told to anchor out in the middle of the ocean. You don’t usually do

that in enemy territory so we knew something was going to happen. When the bomb went off, it moved every ship nine feet.”

The group’s next flight is anticipated for June from Tulsa and a waiting list has already been established. It costs about $95,000 per flight.

Guardians pay $500 for the privilege of accompanying a Veteran, whether they are a relative or not. Donations to the non-profit Oklahoma Honor Flights are encouraged.