91-year-old Murel Clancey sits comfortably in his small bedroom at Generations assisted living facility in Ennis, carefully balancing a small globe of the Earth in his lap. He softly fingers the islands of the South Pacific, slowly remembering the routes he traveled across the sea as a sailor in the United States Navy during WWII as he quietly lists the islands he’s been to.
Clancey and a handful of other WWII veterans from Madison County were recently recognized for their military service with an invitation to participate in an Honor Flight across the country to visit the WWII Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. For the few WWII veterans who are still alive today, it’s a rare chance to see a national monument built in their honor.
Honor Flight is a national program that flies United States veterans to Washington D.C. to visit their memorial at no cost, and priority is given to WWII and terminally ill veterans from all wars. Since 2005 the program has helped more than 60,000 WWII veterans visit the memorial dedicated to the 16 million Americans who served during the war.
The Big Sky Honor Flight departs from Billings on June 15. It is the first of its kind from Montana, and is funded entirely by donations from people and organizations around the state.
The upcoming trip will be the eighth flight that committee president Beth Bouley has volunteered her time for. While it may be a lot of work, it’s a small token of appreciation for the sacrifices American veterans have made over the years.
“It’s important for them to be able to go honor their fellow comrades, for them to know that this country is still caring after that many years,” Bouley said. “Many of the veterans, because of age or health reasons or financial reasons, just were not able to get there to see it.”
Bouley describes the honor flight as a “moving city.” Ninety-six veterans with more than 30 family member escorts are planning to make the trip, including a medical staff and fleet of 50 wheelchairs. With the age group ranging from 84 to 95 years old, some of these men may need a little help getting around during the two-day trip to the nation’s capitol. But don’t tell them that.
“You’ve got to remember we have a lot of fun doing it,” Bouley said.
United States Air Force veteran Dick Marshall of Twin Bridges said he’s looking forward to participating as a passenger on the Big Sky Honor Flight.
“Most of the veterans will never get to see it, and I think its great that we will get the opportunity,” Marshall said.
Al Fox, also of Twin Bridges, served as a United States Army paratrooper in the South Pacific during WWII.
“I will be anxious to see the WWII memorial,” he said.
“I think sharing the trip with other WWII men that are still alive is going to be a big thing for me, and for them,” Fox continued. “I think we’ll flush out our tear ducts quite a bit.”
Bouley says that’s the overwhelming sense of humility displayed across the board by the WWII generation that makes the Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. all the more important. Time after time these men quietly deflect credit for their dedication, bravery and service away from themselves, simply saying they did what they had to just like anyone else would have done.
“They are going with the guys who know what it’s all about,” she said. “Maybe, just maybe, we can put closure on the war for them.”
Al Fox demonstrates this concept of selflessness as he talks about making the flight.
“I’m not sure how many of us feel we really should be honored in this way,” he said. “We just did what everybody else would do, and what young people are doing right now for their country. These young people that are serving now deserve every bit as much recognition as we do.”
As time goes by these men and the stories they have become more and more scarce. And while the memories might not be as sharp as they once were – like a rusty bayonet, the debt of gratitude owed to them still exists today just as strongly as it did over 60 years ago. From his quiet bedroom in Ennis, Murel Clancey reflects on what being a WWII veteran means to him.
“It made Havre a different place, and every other small town I’m sure,” he said of his hometown. “I feel like it is an important thing in my life.”
When asked if the sacrifices made by United States veterans during WWII are important to the freedoms Americans enjoy today, Clancey looks up sharply from tracing over the South Pacific region of his globe.
“You bet your boots,” he said.