October 22, 2022 has become one of the best days in the life of 98-year-old Harold Crist, of Arbovale.
On that Saturday, Crist, a World War II veteran, was accompanied by his son-in-law and fellow veteran, Rick Wooddell, on the West Virginia Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. The men joined more than a hundred veterans and escorts for a day trip to see the war memorials in our nation’s capital.
“It’s something that they started about eight years ago,” Wooddell explained. “Some of the veterans have not been able to get to Washington, D.C. to see all the new memorials that have been built, such as the World War II, Korean and the Air Force memorials, so they just started this project where they raise money or accept donations to go visit the monuments.”
Veterans or family members can submit applications to take part in the flight, and the Honor Flight organization reaches out a month ahead of the flight to let veterans know they have been selected to participate.
Wooddell said he first heard of the program at a Durbin Lions Club meeting when fellow Lion and veteran Kermit Friel said he went on the Honor Flight in 2018. Ironically, this year’s flight was on the same day of the Durbin Lions Club’s 76th anniversary luncheon celebration, but Wooddell said he knew the club would understand why he and Crist were not in attendance.
The flight left Clarksburg at 6:30 in the morning and landed in Baltimore, Maryland, where the group boarded buses for the rest of the journey. Then it was a day of traveling around to each of the memorials and fellowship with veterans from all over the state.
The last time Crist was in D. C. was at least 30 years ago, so the city had changed quite a bit.
“I’d been to the Korean Memorial once before, but not like we did [this time],” he said. “We really studied and understood it. I thought the Air Force Memorial was really attractive, interesting to me. You know when airplanes peel off? They had these three giant steel beams ascend into the heavens [to look like jet streams]. You could hardly see the end of it.”
The World War II Memorial was very impressive to Crist who said he was amazed at all that went into making the memorial.
“I thought that was a really impressive place,” he said. “All of it built by donations. It was just amazing that something like that happened. All of it was a really amazing thing for me.”
Wooddell explained that the World War II Memorial is in a large oblong shape, with main columns on either end – one for the Atlantic and one for the Pacific. A circle of columns for each state and American territory stand around a pool at the center. The pool has a fountain with shooting geysers.
The group also visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watched the changing of the guards. They visited the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Iwo Jima Memorial and the new Women’s Memorial.
The veterans were given plenty of time to spend at each memorial and were not expected to stay together as one large group. There was also some time for the veterans to chat and get to know each other.
As one of three World War II veterans on the trip, Crist said he got a chance to meet several individuals.
“I think I was the oldest person there,” he said. “I talked to other men and other people. They were very receptive of one another.”
“There was the one gentleman who said he worked at Cass,” Wooddell added. “I think he’s a little bit younger than Harold. He was a Navy veteran from the Pacific, also.”
During most of the stops on the trip, the group was greeted by welcoming committees of people with signs and banners.
“They had some active duty military troops and/or ROTC cadets that were there, and they had a gentleman who was dressed up in Colonial garb that welcomed us,” Wooddell said.
All the veterans on the trip were given a care package, which included thank you letters from West Virginia school children, a book about all the war memorials and several other keepsakes.
“It was pretty neat all the thank you notes that were in there,” Crist said. “I really enjoyed that, reading those.”
The letters brought back memories for Crist from when he would send letters home during his deployment. As Wooddell explained, other than “chow time,” the most important time for the men was mail call.
“Whenever mail could get delivered, they looked forward to the mail,” he said.
“How often did your mom write to you when you were out there?” Wooddell asked Crist.
“Maybe once a month,” Crist replied. “It wasn’t regular. Whenever she could get through.”
“I think that he said she wrote him every day, but the letters came in a bundle for a whole month,” Wooddell added.
Crist wrote his mother at least once a week, but said all the letters would be censored because there were things they could not tell their families, like where they were located.
“I sent a letter to her about once a week, but it had so much cut out that you couldn’t tell much about it,” he said. “I tried to tell her where I was. I told them in one, ‘I hope the guinea pigs were doing pretty good,’ so they could know I was in New Guinea. They didn’t cut that out.”
After a long day of touring around D.C., the group returned to Baltimore to catch the plane back to Clarksburg. They touched down at 9:45 p.m., with Crist and Wooddell leading the group off the plane. The group got a true hero’s welcome similar to those soldiers returning from war get.
“When we got off the plane, they had the local county honor corps and on the right side they had a group of Vietnam vets and girl scouts and boy scouts,” Wooddell said. “They were holding all the flags and then we got a little further down and there was a fence line that had all the people that were waiting on their friends and family that were on the trip.
“They had the East Fairmont band there and people came out from all over Clarksburg to welcome us back,” he continued. “They did a water cannon shoot over the airplane. It was just very well organized.”
Wooddell was very complimentary of the organization and said the administrator did a great job with the tour. He was moved by her parting words as they left the plane that evening.
“I think the best quote was when the administrator of the whole thing said – when we got off the flight – she said, ‘to the World War II vets who are on board, we want to thank you for our freedom. To the Korean vets, you are not forgotten and to the Vietnam vets, welcome home.’ That was kind of her parting words when we got off the plane.”
The West Virginia Honor Flight was one of six in D.C. that day and Crist and Wooddell said they got to meet veterans from other states while they were visiting the memorials.
“It was interesting talking to them,” Crist said. “This one boy…”
“He was an escort from the Buffalo/Niagara group,” Wooddell inserted. “He walked up to Harold and said, ‘are you a World War II vet? Harold said, ‘yes,’ and he just started shaking his hand and started a conversation, saying thank you and all this kind of stuff. We didn’t think he was ever going to let go of his hand.”
“Sometimes it almost made you cry,” Crist said, of the interactions he had. “It was touching, very touching.”
In his 98 years of life, Crist has made so many wonderful memories with his family, friends and community. The Honor Flight experience has become one of his favorite days and one of those wonderful memories he will cherish.
“It’s one of the most amazing trips that I’ve ever had,” Crist said. “I had to wait ninety-eight years. I was so thankful that I could walk and do it all. I thought it was awesome.”