Southern Ill. WW II veterans take a flight of a lifetime

SOUTHERN ILLINOIS (KFVS) - A central Illinois man makes it his mission to honor the men and women who fought for our freedom in World War II.  It started with a story on CBS's Sunday Morning, highlighting the effort to bring World War II veterans face to face with the national monument in their honor.

The story inspired Don Niebert to organize a volunteer team dedicated to making that dream come true for vets in southern and central Illinois.

Recently an honor flight took off from the Williamson County Regional Airport with 52 veterans on board. It's an honor many veterans on the plane said they never expected to see.

For this trip to our nation's capital veteran Bob Claybourn, from Mount Vernon, is joined by his daughter. But when Claybourn was just a teen he put on a Marine Corps uniform in 1942.

"I went to Iwo Jima and when we come back from Iwo we got re-supplied with men and equipment and we was ready to take off a again when (President) Harry Truman dropped the bomb," Claybourn said.

But when Claybourn, like many of the other World War II veterans returned home, there was no celebration.  That's until their arrival on an honor flight in Washington D.C., decades after their service.

"They didn't have a parade for us when we got home, but now they got something, I guess that makes it, that fills it up," Claybourn said.

Yet, the visit to the World War II memorial brings different emotions to veteran Hobart Beasley. Beasley shows cards from his wallet, it turns out he's a charter member of the memorial. It was a surprise gift from his son in 2003.

"Then I got a letter stating that I was a charter member," Beasley explained.

Beasley's lost his son just two years later.  So on that sunny day, Beasley says he remembers both his son and those marked by these gold stars on the memorial.

"The gold stars, representing those that give it their all, the ultimate," Beasley added.

At just 18-years-old Beasley joined the navy and shipped out to the pacific. But all these years later, Beasley says never thought he would see this monument, dedicated to the sacrifice of the greatest generation.

"I didn't think I ever would until the honor flight," Beasley said. "If it hadn't been for them I would have never made it here."

Upon their return to Marion, the some 50 World War II veterans were greeted by dozens waving American flags, clapping and thanking the vets for their service. The homecoming clearly brought tears to many eyes. One more surprise, which some vets say makes it a day they'll never forget.

To learn more about the Central Illinois Honor Flight click here.

Copyright 2011 KFVS. All rights reserved.