The World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., was built to honor the 16 million Americans who served in the armed forces during that conflict, the more than 400,000 who died, and all who supported their efforts from the homefront. But the Greatest Generation is aging rapidly, and about 1,200 World War II veterans die each day; most won't see the memorial honoring their sacrifice.
That seemed wrong to former Air Force Captain Earl Morse, and he came up with an idea: Send those veterans who are willing and able to the nation's capital, free of charge. His non-profit organization, Honor Flight Network, transports World War II veterans to Washington, D.C. from 75 locations all over the country. In 2009, the organization's fifth year of operation, Honor Flight transported nearly 36,000 veterans.
A recent Smithsonian Channel special ("Wings of Honor") follows three World War II veterans as they travel from Kansas to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorial. The men—Lee Phelps, E.J. Novotny, and George Koogle—had vastly different wartime experiences, serving on Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Saipan, but all were eager to defend their country. "All the younger people," says Novotny, "naturally were anxious to get the hell over there and whip their butts. Can I use profanity in this?"
"Wings of Honor" is available on demand through the Smithsonian Channel. Watch a sneak peek, below.