MARQUETTE - Six months after it happened, Richard Wills still gets a bit choked up when he talks about being part of the first Upper Peninsula Honor Flight.
The flight, which took a group of 80-plus World War II veterans to see the memorial in their honor in the nation's capital, meant a great deal to Wills, a lifelong Negaunee resident who turns 92 this month.
"There were 21 of us from Negaunee who went in (the service) at the same time. I am the only one left," he said. "When I was on the trip, when I saw our memorial, it was like I was there seeing this for them, too."
Negaunee native Richard Wills poses after enlisting in the U.S. Army when he was 20 years old in 1940, just prior to the start of World War II. (Richard Wills photo)
Wills was 20 when his father signed the papers for him to join the 107th Engineers of the U.S. Army. He went into the service in October 1940 and served in five different campaigns, including Omaha Beach, until he was discharged in 1945.
When the opportunity to join other U.P. veterans in the day-long adventure of flying to Washington, D.C., came up, Wills was thrilled to be able to take part. And he's enthusiastically supporting the next such flight, which leaves April 26 from Escanaba, affording another group of WWII veterans the chance to see their special tribute.
"I am 100 percent behind (the honor flight)," he said. "It's just great. It's the only way most everyone will get there to see our memorial. I could never drive it on my own.
"They took incredible care of us from 4:30 in the morning until 10 that night when we got back," Wills said. "The age range in my group on the trip was 87 to 99 and I know a lot of guys on the trip had wheelchairs. But you know what, those guys didn't miss a thing on the trip. It was fantastic."
Barb Van Rooy, who helps to organize every detail of the journey, is trying to make sure all U.P. WWII veterans know about the flight because, while there's a waiting list for the April trip, if there are enough veterans wanting to go, and enough funds are raised, a third trip in September is entirely possible.
"Our goal is to get every veteran on a trip if they want to go," she said. "We don't have the luxury of a lot of time."
Van Rooy said more than 80 veterans are slated to make the April trip, with 26 coming from Marquette County. The veterans can stay at the Peninsula Bay Inn in Escanaba at a discounted rate the night before the flight and will be treated to a meet-and-greet session that evening as the start of the tributes.
Making the first trip herself, Van Rooy was in awe of how well things went.
"It is a true honor to spend a day like that with a World War II vet," she said. "It's impossible to put it all into words. It's something you have to experience to be able to understand. But it was amazing to see the veterans react to everything they saw. They appreciated everything about the trip.
"When we got to D.C., there was a group of volunteers there to welcome us. And everywhere we went, people would come up and thank our veterans for their service to our country. It was heartwarming."
In addition to visiting the World War Ii Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial, the veterans were brought to visit Arlington National Cemetery.
"Four of our veterans got to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," Van Rooy said. "That was so moving."
The public can certainly help with the Honor Flight effort, Van Rooy said.
"We need people to spread the word. A lot of the vets think they're too old to go, but we can deal with physical limitations," she said.
Volunteering to help on the trip include a doctor, three EMTs, a nurse and a respiratory therapist, with medical equipment like oxygen tanks and wheelchairs brought along in case they were needed.
Of course, monetary donations toward the flight are welcome as well.
Donations can be made through the organization's website, upperpeninsulahonorflight.org, or by sending them via mail to Honor Flight, c/o Community Foundation of the Upper Peninsula, 2500 7th Ave. South, Suite 103, Escanaba, MI 49829.
Anyone willing to donate their time or services to the organization can reach Van Rooy at 906-280-1471.
Wills hopes any WWII veteran hearing about the flight signs up for it.
"It was fantastic," he said. "I can't believe there might be some vets who don't want to go. They may never get the chance again. You're missing the boat if you don't go."
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.