PITTSBURG, Kan. — Seventy years ago this month, Carthage, Missouri, native Homer Cole and eight other young soldiers flew a B-17 Flying Fortress across the English Channel to Brandenburg, Germany. 

Their 18th bombing mission did not end well.

“We got shot up,” said Cole, who was serving as a tail gunner. “We lost two engines, and we were flying at an angle. The pilot was laying on the floor, and the co-pilot called me to the pilot’s seat. I worked the trim tab to make it fly level.”

They threw their guns overboard to lighten the plane, then the ball turret. As soon as their wheels hit Belgium soil, Cole deployed a parachute to try to slow the plane down.

The pilot and radio operator were injured severely, while Cole took a bit of flak to his skull.

Today, Cole, now 89, is preparing to again board an airplane and take to the skies with fellow soldiers, this time to commemorate their service to their country.

“I think this flight will be a lot safer,” Cole said.

Called an Honor Flight, the trip will take Cole and 25 other area veterans, including one from Parsons and three from Coffeyville, for a three-day tour of national war memorials, Arlington National Cemetery and the National Air Museum. They will be accompanied by 26 guardians, each tasked with helping with luggage, wheelchairs and the veterans' well-being.

Cole’s guardian will be his youngest daughter, Cindy Bugni.

Kansas Honor Flight

The flight is organized through Kansas Honor Flight, headed up by Mike VanCampen from his home office in Turon, Kansas. It’s one of several he plans each year.

“We have a very simple mission,” VanCampen said. “To get our World War II, Korean and Vietnam vets to Washington to see memorials built to commemorate their service at no cost to the vets,” he said.

Priority is given by age; World War II vets are taken first, with seats given to Korean and then Vietnam vets as space is available. They pay nothing; guardians who accompany them pay $700 for the entire trip, which includes the flight, two nights in a hotel, a tour bus and all meals.

VanCampen’s involvement with the national network of honor flights began in 2009 with a friendship with a veteran who had served in World War II.

“He heard about the Honor Flight and wanted to do it," he said. "I went with him and was very impressed by it, and so was he — that America had done that to honor him and the others who served.”

Two months later, that veteran died, underscoring to VanCampen the importance of getting World War II veterans like Cole on such flights before it’s too late.

He founded his regional hub in May 2012, with the first flight in September 2012.

“Since that time, we have taken about 650 veterans to Washington on 22 flights,” he said. “It’s just wonderful to see the reaction that the veterans have when they realize that the public hasn’t forgotten what they did. When they're there at those memorials, people treat them like rock stars. And that's what we want.”

He and his wife, Connie, each work about 50 hours a week leading up to and during the flight season, which runs April through October. They receive no salary, nor do the other personnel affiliated with the program.

VanCampen considers the work a privilege. During the Vietnam War draft, he flunked the physical fitness exam because of poor eyesight.

“I didn’t get to serve my country, so I’m serving the guys who did,” he said.

His hub, like the others across the nation, relies entirely on private contributions.

“There are no tax dollars involved whatsoever. The money comes from a grateful public — from corporations, individuals, student groups, three little girls that had a lemonade stand,” he said.

‘Fantastic’

Past Honor Flight attendee Ken Jenkins, an 83-year-old resident of Duenweg, Missouri, and a Korean War veteran, said he’s humbled by the efforts of those who donate and those who coordinate.

His flight, taken in 2014 through the Wamego School District Honor Flight hub, was “fantastic.”

“I was extremely excited to have the opportunity to go,” Jenkins said. “It was a privilege. It was very, very moving.”

“It was the chance to be officially recognized and honored.”

As for Cole, whose career included directing the Joplin Parks & Recreation Department, managing bowling alleys in Joplin, Miami, Oklahoma, and Pittsburg, serving as Pittsburg mayor and building a senior center, he counts his time spent serving his country in uniform as one of his most valuable contributions.

He said he is excited to go to the nation’s capital for the first time and see a memorial dedicated to not just his service, but that of his three brothers and many, many friends. Some made it home, others did not.

“I think people should be thankful they live in the U.S.,” Cole said. “We’re lucky to be here. This is a great country. These Honor Flights are a great way to recognize the people who helped make it that way.”

Numbers

According to Mike VanCampen, the Honor Flight network has transported more than 220,000 veterans of World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War to Washington. Founded in 2004, the movement has grown to 133 chapters serving veterans in 41 states and the District of Columbia.

Andra Bryan Stefanoni is a staff writer for The Joplin Globe. She has been a reporter and editor at The Pittsburg Morning Sun and the former Girard Press, has written for state and national magazines, and has taught journalism.