By Don Wilkins
Vietnam veteran Grover Oliver waited under a tent outside the Owensboro Sportscenter on Monday with fellow servicemen who were preparing for the Honor Flight bound for Washington, D.C.
Oliver, a 69-year-old Ohio County resident and Army veteran, had to pause a moment to hold back some emotions as he thought about what it will be like seeing his buddy’s name on the Vietnam War Memorial for the first time.
“His name was Richard Ellsworth,” Oliver said about his close friend who died at age 22 in Kontum, South Vietnam, on June, 24, 1969.
“I got to see him three weeks there in ‘Nam before he got killed,” he said. “We grew up from third grade all the way through high school together,” in Crown Point, Indiana.
Oliver was among 17 area veterans who were part of a special send-off held on the 72nd anniversary of D-Day.
The ceremony drew family members, friends and public officials who waved United States flags as they cheered the World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans.
Each veteran is required to have a guardian to help escort him during the three-day trip.
Leonard Ferrell, 90, of Owensboro was one of four World War II veterans participating in the Honor Flight, and who was sharing the experience with his 70-year-old son and trip guardian Gregg Ferrell.
Leonard Ferrell, a Navy veteran who served from 1943 to 1946, was assigned to the USS Martin H. Ray (DE-338), a destroyer escort that protected Navy convoys from sea and air attacks.
“We chased German submarines,” Leonard Ferrell said. “We didn’t get any submarines that we knew of.”
Gregg Ferrell said he was looking forward to spending the time with his father who will be visiting the National World War II Memorial for the first time.
“This is going to be one of the best things we’ve ever done together,” Gregg Ferrell said.
Brothers Jack and Harry Tuttle, both Korean War veterans, were scheduled to make the Honor Flight together.
However, Jack Tuttle, 83, said his younger 82-year-old brother, Harry, had to be admitted to the hospital, preventing him from making the trip.
“I don’t know how I’m going to react when I see the Korean memorial, but I am anxious,” said Jack Tuttle, a Navy veteran who served from 1952 to 1956.
The local Honor Flights are mainly sponsored by the Daviess County Sheriff’s Department and the Owensboro Rotary Club, which is a major financial contributor. The trip to the nation’s capital is at no cost to the veterans. The guardians usually have to pay a portion, but their expenses were paid through a $5,000 donation this year by the Michael E. Horn Family Foundation.
Barbara Poynter, a member of the Rotary Club, organizes the annual Honor Flight send-off and welcome back ceremonies.
Poynter said the veterans will return on Wednesday with a lunch at Owensboro Christian Church at noon.
“The send-offs are special but you should see them when they get home,” Poynter said. “The veterans will usually give an exhausted smile that makes you want to tear up.”
Twenty veterans were originally scheduled to take part in the Honor Flight but three had to cancel at the last minute.
The local servicemen will join 85 other veterans from across the state once in Louisville.
Sheriff Keith Cain said age and the health of the veterans make the Honor Flights even more valuable.
“For many of these individuals, their health is fragile to say the least,” Cain said.
But Cain, who acted as emcee for the send-off, told the crowd that the Honor Flight will be a memorable experience for all involved.
“The people who have been on this flight before will tell you that it is a roller coaster of emotions,” Cain said. “Veterans will do a lot of laughing, will tell a lot of stories and will shed a lot of tears.”
As they left the Sportscenter, the veterans, who were transported by GRITS, were escorted out of Owensboro by the Rolling Thunder, Legion Riders and Faith Riders.