WASHINGTON, D.C. — The first day of the overnight trip to the nation's capital to "see their memorials" has a group of 65 central Illinois World War II veterans tired, but it's a "very energetic" group, says organizer Don Niehart.
"Fantastic," said Douglas Hager, a veteran from Gibson City. "Beyond my wildest imagination."
The group left Willard Airport around 6 a.m. on Thursday. They're scheduled to return Friday around 7 p.m.
In between, they will have seen Arlington National Cemetery, the Navy, Air Force and Iwo Jima memorials and the National Museum of American History.
And that was just Thursday. On Friday, they are scheduled to visit the Air and Space Museum, the Lincoln, Vietnam and Korean memorials, and — the centerpiece of the trip — the World War II memorial.
It's the third Honor Flight out of Willard Airport, and the 21st flight for Central Illinois Honor Flight. The group has one more flight scheduled this year, and has taken more than 1,300 central Illinois World War II veterans to see the monuments in Washington that commemorate their service about 70 years ago, Niehart said.
Friday might hold the best tour yet. Niehart said the group asks veterans to complete a survey after every Honor Flight, and one of the questions is which tour they liked the best.
"I can tell you the World War II memorial is always first," he said.
But don't take credit away from day one, either.
"It's just overwhelming, really," retired Marine corporal Thelma Labhart said on Thursday afternoon in front of the Iwo Jima memorial, a tribute to U.S. Marines. "Or awesome. I don't know what to say."
Labhart, of Mahomet, is the only female veteran on this Honor Flight. She's 89, but has not forgotten any of the Morse code she used during the war, and her husband was a Marine sniper on Iwo Jima.
"It's a day I'll always remember," she said.
This might be one of the last Honor Flights with only World War II veterans as passengers, Niehart said. The group has one more flight scheduled this year, then next year plans to begin booking Korean War veterans as passengers.
Each veteran is accompanied by a "guardian," either a family member or a volunteer designated to ensure their tour is enjoyable.
Hager invited his guardian, Steve Sharp, an Afghanistan veteran.
"This is World War II, honoring World War II," Hager said. "But we should honor this young man just as much."
Labhart is accompanied by her daughter, Lisa Frederickson.
"I feel overly honored, I've been thanked so many times today," Labhart said. "More than I ever expected."
Honor Flight: Welcome home!
Where: University of Illinois Willard Airport, Savoy. Gate is between the Flightstar Building and the 'old terminal.'
When: 7 p.m. Friday, estimated arrival time at Flightstar, Savoy.
Where to park: Follow the American flags to Flightstar parking. Marshals will be out directing traffic.
Following the flight home: http://www.flightaware.com  ("ZDC" for origin and "KCMI" for destination; look for Sun Country flight). Or you can join the Honor Flight Text Club (text HONOR to 77000). You'll be sent a text when the plane departs Washington, with arrival at Willard about 90 minutes later.