In 1943, LeRoy Gruber took his first flight. Serving as navigator with the Army Air Force, LeRoy helped ferry a C-46 transport plane down the east coast of South America, across Africa, through the Middle East, and delivered to Allied forces in India.
In 2011, LeRoy – now a resident at Meridian Village – took his latest flight. But when he landed this time, he and his fellow servicemen weren’t greeted with superior officers barking orders. “When we arrived at the airport in Washington, DC, there was a line of people eight to ten deep on both sides of us making an aisle for us to walk down,” he says. “They were all clapping and smiling. It was nothing but thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“That really hit us. All of us,” he says. “There’s no way we could forget that welcome.”
LeRoy, along with another fifty-plus World War II veterans from the Midwest, were taking part in an Honor Flight – a service moment provided by various nonprofit organizations throughout the US that helps retired servicemen and women get a chance to visit the National World War II Memorial. Their aim – to thank members of The Greatest Generation for their sacrifices in the name of freedom.
“Let me tell you,” LeRoy says. “It was awesome from start to finish. The lengths those people went to just made it so special.” Each participant was given a first class tour of the nation’s capitol and its many military monuments. And better yet, LeRoy was able to share the trip with his daughter Penny Lee and his grandson Tyler.
While most Honor Flight trips are 24-hour excursions, LeRoy and his family took part in a rare two-day event over Veterans Day weekend. During their visit to the World War II Memorial, his group was recognized as part of a special ceremony honoring the fallen.
From the view of Arlington National Cemetary outside his motel window to the feeling he got standing in the shadow of the Air Force Memorial and the Pentagon, the memories LeRoy brought back are ones he’ll never forget. But the one that sticks with him the most happened on the flight home.
“They handed each of us a big yellow envelope,” he says. “And inside, it was full of cards and letters from school children all around Illinois thanking us for what we did. They even had letters for me from my daughter, my son, my daughter-in-law…It brought tears to my eyes.” A sample of the letters included in that packet are pictured at left.
Since his return, LeRoy has spread the word about the Honor Flights to his fellow vets. “Over 60% of the male population here at Meridian Village are veterans,” he says. “I’ve been telling them, ‘Anyone who was in World War II would want to see this.’” He’s quick to point out that the Honor Flight volunteers and the veterans’ family members help provide personal and even some medical assistance for seniors. “They took care of everything.”
“We were there not only to share the experience with Dad, but to help out as well,” says LeRoy’s daughter Penny. “As ‘guardians’, Tyler and I were there to help carry Dad’s meds, assist with his wheelchair, and basically help him so he could focus on enjoying the experience. Between the guardians and the nurses that came with us, the veterans got any and all help they needed.”
“It was a fantastic time. I hope every veteran will sign up,” she says. “It’s a free trip for them, and the organization behind the trip can find an escort for them if they don’t have a family member who’s able to go.”
If you or a loved one served during World War II and are interested in participating in an upcoming Honor Flight, visit CentralIllinoisHonorFlight.org (in Illinois) or GSLHonorFlight.org (in Missouri) to learn more about how to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Trips are also forming now for groups of Korean War veterans.
Click below to see a small selection of the monuments LeRoy toured during his visit to Washington.