Clarence Christensen piloted a B-24 bomber in World War II.
As a young man, he safely guided his plane through southern European skies filled with antiaircraft shells. He and his crew flew 35 missions.
Now he’s an 85-year-old lieutenant colonel from Valparaiso who’s retired from the Air National Guard.
His days as a pilot are long since past.
But there’s one more plane ride he would love to take.
He recently learned the Nebraska VFW plans to fly veterans to see the National World War II Memorial, which was completed nearly four years ago. If enough money is raised, a chartered flight will depart from Omaha May 21, spend the day in Washington, D.C., and return that night — all free-of-charge for 100 World War II vets from Nebraska and western Iowa.
“I think it’s a splendid opportunity,” Christensen said. “I don’t hold a lot of hope I can go, but I’m hoping I can.”
To make the flight happen, organizers of the Heartland Honor Flight need to raise $70,000. The Nebraska Veterans of Foreign Wars state headquarters in Lincoln will collect the tax-deductible donations, said John R. Liebsack, its adjutant quartermaster.
So far, they’ve received about $14,000, Liebsack said.
Hitting their goal means the only money veterans might have to spend is for lodging in Omaha the night before the flight and for any souvenirs at the memorial.
Otherwise, organizers want the veterans to save the money they would spend on meals and travel.
“They saved the world,” Liebsack said. “They’ve done enough.”
Qualified veterans will be selected for the trip on a first-come, first-served basis, Liebsack said. They must obtain an application either through the national Honor Flight Web site or by calling the VFW in Lincoln.
In addition to the veterans, the flight will include between 30 and 40 escorts who will pay their own way. Organizers plan to bring doctors, emergency medical technicians and professionals trained to help people who use wheelchairs.
There simply won’t be space for spouses or relatives of vets.
“Every time we put a family member on the plane, that would be a veteran who doesn’t get to go,” Liebsack said.
Nationally, 16.1 million Americans served during World War II and about 2.5 million are still living, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The number of World War II veterans living in Nebraska is unknown. The most recent figure available through the VA in September 2006 put the number at 17,752.
VA statisticians, however, predict a mortality rate of about 2,063 per year, said Kelli Sweeney, administrative secretary at the Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs.
That would put the estimate of World War II vets closer to 15,700.
And the youngest of them are about 80 years old.
“Time is short, we’ve got to act now,” said Bill Williams of Omaha, who proposed the idea of the Heartland Honor Flight.
Williams, 56, is a salesman for a school design firm and a former teacher who has long been interested in war history.
He’s not a veteran, he said.
The national program the Nebraska flight is based on was started in 2005 in Springfield, Ohio, by a retired Air Force captain and physician’s assistant who wanted to help some of his veteran patients visit the memorial.
For veterans, there are two basic rules. First, their money won’t be accepted. Second, they simply had to have served in the Armed Forces during the war.
“We make no distinction on the war record,” Williams said. “Whether a guy was a typist or waded to shore at Normandy, it makes no difference.”
While some Nebraska communities have raised money to send World War II veterans to see the memorial, none opened a flight statewide, Williams said.
In addition, organizers plan to host a dinner for the veterans the night before their departure at the Durham Western Heritage Museum in Omaha. Roy Dinsdale, former chairman of Pinnacle Bank, donated $10,000 to cover the cost of the banquet and entertainment, Williams said.
His biggest concern is that far more than 100 veterans will apply. But if donors give more than the goal, perhaps organizers will try to charter a second flight, Williams said.
“I’ve had people say why don’t you do one now and another in a few years,” he said.
“Just think how many we’ll lose in a few years.”
Reach Joe Duggan at 473-7239 or firstname.lastname@example.org.