COLUMBIA, S.C. — World War II and Korean War veteran Edward Purcell Jr. says he knows he’s blessed to enjoy good health and a robust spirit, given his 89 years and the fact he was shot down twice in combat.
So he hopes organizers of an upcoming South Carolina Honor Flight can find other veterans like him, who are able to manage flying to Washington on May 13 to see the monuments built in their honor.
“I’m in excellent physical condition,” said Purcell with a chuckle during a recent interview. “I really appreciate being able to go on this trip because I haven’t been able to see those monuments.”
Purcell, who trained as a pilot in the waning days of World War II, was recalled to service during the Korean War.
He was shot down twice in 1953 during the Korean conflict, earning a Purple Heart and Air Medal. He said he enjoys keeping in touch with many fellow Navy men who served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, now moored as a museum in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
“I’ve been going to their reunions for years,” he said while showing off pages of pictures from his war days and the carrier’s association meetings.
Trip organizers say they are hoping to find as many veterans as possible from South Carolina to take on the free, all-day venture. The deadline for signup is April 15. While they are seeking out World War II veterans, they are also making room for Korean War veterans.
Organizer Bill Dukes, who founded the South Carolina Honor Flight program in 2008, has helped set up 20 earlier flights carrying more than 2,500 veterans from the state to the nation’s capital.
He was inspired by a visit with his own father to the Washington monuments and said he wanted to offer more veterans in the region the chance for such reflection and remembrance. Dukes served in the Air Force for about four years in the 1960s.
The tour takes in the memorial dedicated to those who served in World War II, as well as the Korean, Vietnam and Iwo Jima memorials. The tour also stops at Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns.
“Time is not on our side,” Dukes said of finding the World War II veterans. “We have lost so many and those still with us are very frail. This may be the last chance for anyone who can go, to go.”
Dukes said organizers are willing to take veterans from other states, particularly if they have a South Carolina connection. Sometimes their children or grandchildren live in South Carolina and are able to get them to the flight departure site at Columbia’s airport.
Supporters who accompany many of the veterans contribute a $500 donation to the nonprofit organization.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Steve Siegfried of Columbia, who has been on 17 of the flights, said he is no longer able to maneuver the on-the-bus, off-the-bus regime the tour requires.
A group of volunteer physicians and nurses go over each veteran’s medical records ahead of time to make sure they can handle the rigors of the tour. For some, it is the first time they have been on an airplane.
‘I’ll be there to welcome them home,” Siegfried said, noting that dozens of supporters gather at the airport to offer a rousing send-off and welcome once they get back to the Columbia airport.
Siegfried said the chance to accompany the veterans on the tour was something he cherished.
“Have you ever had an elderly veteran look you in the eye and say, ‘This has been the best day in my life.’ It grabs your heart,” Siegfried said. “It is wonderful.”
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