Local veteran Elmer Wilhelm has been to Washington, D.C., many times, but never to see the memorial honoring those who served in World War II like him.
As a teacher in Lockport, Wilhelm would take field trips there with the eighth-grade students. But he retired 25 years ago, and the World War II memorial was opened to the public in 2004. Earlier this month, though, Wilhelm participated in an Honor Flight to Washington.
"You don’t see too much because you’ve got to keep an eye on the kids," Wilhelm said about leading trips there with the schools. "This time I got to really take a look around."
The Army Air Corps sergeant served from 1946-49 left on June 7 for the Honor Flight, which collects money and organizes trips so veterans can go to Washington, participate in ceremonies and see the nation's capital.A volunteer guardian leads the veterans around the city to see all the monuments and other spots, such as Arlington National Cemetery.
Wilhelm, 83, was taken to Midway airport by Paul Chen of the local American Legion Post 1977, and a warm reception at the airport greeted him and 96 other World War II veterans. When they returned from their trip, an even larger group welcomed them home.
"I turned the corner and there must have been a thousand people," he said. "And they all want to shake your hand. My wife (Matilda) made a big ol' sign for me. I pulled her out of the crowd and she walked with me."
A young boy, maybe 10, stepped out of the crowd and handed Wilhelm a letter. It was addressed to a veteran of no specific name, but the boy spotted Wilhelm's Air Corps hat and picked him out because, as the letter read, his grandfather served as a bomber and had recently died. The boy simply wanted to thank someone for their sacrifice.
That's one of the missions of the Honor Flight, and as Wilhelm recalled his recent trip Wednesday afternoon in his home, he couldn't find the words to describe how meaningful of a trip it was.
"It was just ... quite frankly every time I talk about that trip I start to choke up," he said. "To take a word my students used, it was awesome."