NEW PALESTINE — Year after year, Bill Hilton watched and heard from friends who had served in the military about how rewarding it had been for them to be taken on the Honor Flight.
Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit organization created to honor Indiana’s veterans for all their sacrifices, transports former military members to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at their memorials as a way to thank them for their service.
Hilton, 84, a New Palestine resident, ran into an old high school friend a few months ago, who encouraged him to apply for the trip, so he did and was selected to go in September.
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Hilton enlisted in the United States Army in 1951, when he was just a teenager fresh out of high school. He served three years during the Korean War as a paratrooper for the 11th Airborne 503 Infantry Division.
The Honor Flight exceeded Hilton’s expectations, he said.
He credited volunteers in Indiana and Washington, D.C., for making it such a memorable day with so many things set up for the veterans.
“We never had to say, ‘Where we going, how do we get there?’ They had it all mapped out for us,” Hilton said.
His neighbor, James Wolsiffer, 33, a Sugar Creek Township fire fighter, accompanied Hilton on the trip to Washington, D.C. Participants are required to take someone, a guardian, with medical training on the flight with them.
Wolsiffer’s grandfather took the trip last year with his aunt, so he had heard what kind of day was in store for them. But seeing it firsthand and being a part of the recognition the veterans are treated to was amazing, Wolsiffer said.
“Seeing the veterans get a welcome home was the biggest thing, because back in the day when they served, they didn’t get that,” Wolsiffer said.
From the time Hilton and Wolsiffer stepped off the plane in Washington, D.C., to the time they got back on it to fly home, they had a great time seeing the national war monuments, including the World War II monument, they said. They also visited special military sites such as Arlington National Cemetery and even got to see the Lincoln Memorial.
They both enjoyed watching the veterans bask in the glory many missed following the exit from their service. The experience hit Hilton hard, he said.
“Seeing the memorials, especially the one for the Korean War, meant the most to me,” Hilton said.
After having an early morning flight to Washington, D.C., they were immediately greeted by a group of well-wishers who gave the veterans a standing ovation as soon as their flight landed. From there, it was a whirlwind of non-stop sightseeing, they said.
Hilton’s wife of more than 60 years, Marilyn Hilton, said she and her husband have talked about the trip nearly every day since he returned.
While her husband didn’t ever have to travel to Korea during the war, he did have many missions to complete during his service time, his wife said. It included a secret mission he was not allowed to talk about for 20 years after exiting the military.
“He had to jump out of a plane, when he had no idea where he was, and leave something,” Marilyn Hilton said.
The experience was a memorable one, Bill Hilton said; he and others on the mission had to jump well below the standard safety height without a reserve chute from about 250 feet above the ground — at night.
“The first three seconds we fell over 90 feet,”Hilton said.
After the assigned crew of 12 paratroopers landed and dropped off the bags, they quickly traveled to the water, got in rubber rafts and paddled out into the ocean were they were picked up later by a submarine.
“We were on that sub for three days and only saw one person, the guy who brought us our food,” Hilton said.
He eventually landed in Hawaii, before heading back to the mainland where the government paid him an extra $50 for hazard pay.
The trip on the Honor Flight, helped bring back the memory and others like it, Hilton said.