Saturday was one of the emotional days in his life, Shelburn F. Lee of White Hall said, acknowledging many of the nearly 170 World War II veterans from Arkansas who flew to Washington to view the World War II Memorial were overcome with the experience.
“It was a very moving experience,” Lee said Sunday. “I am not ashamed to say I cried more than once.”
Three Arkansas-based companies chartered two commercial jets to fly 168 veterans free of charge from Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport at Little Rock to the nation’s capital and back. They left Little Rock at 7:30 a.m. and returned 12 hours later.
Five Honor Network flights operated by the non-profit have originated from the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport since 2009. Saturday’s flight was the first from Little Rock.
Lee said he learned about the Honor Flights out of Northwest Arkansas from a former college roommate and inquired when Little Rock was considered for one.
Lee, 92, was accompanied by his son, Brent, who drove to White Hall from Atlanta on Friday and returned home on Sunday.
“When we arrived at the airport Saturday morning a band was playing,” he recalled. “There were two lines of people – young and old, men and women, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts – to welcome us.
“The tears started rolling down my face. It was very emotional. I felt like a genuine hero.
“I’ve never been so high and emotional in my life.”
A similar welcome was offered in Washington, he added. Brent and his father had agreed the elder Lee would use a wheelchair at the monument.
They received breakfast on the flight to Washington, lunch on chartered buses in the capital and the evening meal on the flight home, Lee said.
“I have been to a lot of functions over the years, but this was the best organized and the finest I have been to,” he added.
“The sacrifices they made as young men and women ensured the freedoms we have today,” a spokesman for the Honor Flights explained. “We are proud to play a part in helping them see firsthand the national memorial dedicated to their service.”
The Grapevine native served in the Navy during World War II, enlisting with the hopes of entering the fleet’s air wing as a pilot. However, he couldn’t master the Morse Code requirements used for communications and was assigned to a naval air station in Rhode Island where as an aviation metalsmith he made parts to repair the Chance Vought Corsair, the carrier-capable fighter aircraft flown by the Navy and Marines.
His personnel file contains a commendation for a suggestion he made to increase production of the spare parts. He remembers the “monetary award” mention in the letter was $10.
After the war he returned to college under the GI Bill and completed his degree in agriculture. He landed a position teaching agriculture at Dumas and his wife, Mary Ella, taught at the Dumas elementary school.
Eleven years in the classroom was followed by more than a decade with Oliver Corp. as a territory manager for the farm equipment firm. He later established the Lee Co. in Pine Bluff to sell power tools and lawn equipment, closing the firm in 1992 when he retired.
He said his days in Dumas were among the most enjoyable of his life, pulling out a certificate indicating his designation as a Ding Dong Daddy of Dumas in 2004.
“We looked at everything,” he said of Saturday’s monument tour.
He received his commemorative pin at the memorial from retired Army Brig. Gen. Evelyn “Pat” Foote, one of the original members of the memorial committee.
Flight organizers planned a return reception for the veterans at the Little Rock airport Saturday, featuring the Arkansas Army National Guard color guard and the Army Quartet Band.
Lee said he does not know how many more flights to see the monument are planned.
“World War II veterans are getting scarce,” he said in a matter-of-fact voice.