Days ahead of his 100th birthday, World War II Army veteran Donald Woodruff is experiencing sheer joy in the skies over Alma, Nebraska.
“I’ve been in a lot of airplanes. I used to fly them,” Woodruff says.
The former pilot, however, has never been throttled up in a Boeing Stearman biplane, until today.
“Don’s been talking about it for a week now and has been making sure we had everything lined up so he could go,” Erica Little, activities coordinator at Good Samaritan Society – Alma, says.
Woodruff and 96-year-old Navy vet John Hawley, also a former pilot, are being propelled through the air by the Dream Flights organization with the support of the Society, where the veterans live.
When asked about his favorite part of the flight, Woodruff replies, “All of it.”
“It’s crazy. I can’t believe so many people came. It’s awesome that the community came out to support them,” Little says.
‘Fabulous that we’re recognizing that generation’
Lisa Gennaro drove seven hours to see Woodruff, her second cousin, enjoy the day.
“I came from Keystone, South Dakota,” Gennaro says. “I just think it’s fabulous that we’re recognizing that generation and any military generation. I’m excited for him. Real happy.”
The 20-minute trips fly by, especially when you’re having fun.
“It was too damn short,” Woodruff jokes.
Dream Flights, launched in 2011, has given more than 4,200 veterans and seniors living in long-term care communities the ride of a lifetime.
“This is the trainer that all the World War II pilots would have started in,” pilot Scott Delong says about the gear Dream Flights employs.
While piloting the aircraft is cool, Delong says it’s not the highlight of his work.
“I just want to come and talk with these gentlemen about their stories and what they’ve done for our country. It just brings my wife and myself into tears at times when you hear what they’ve done for us,” Delong says.
Society should be ‘applauded for the efforts’
Hawley’s nephew Ron, also a pilot and manager of the Alma Municipal Airport, says Society staff were instrumental in planning this special event.
“It’s fantastic. It’s an honor to be here with the World War II vets,” Ron says. “I think it’s a fantastic deal and they need to be applauded for the efforts they’re doing for the veterans.”
After his turn in the air, Hawley yells, “Thanks for the ride!”
“We like to try to honor them in any way we can, and this is obviously a great opportunity to do that,” Little says.
From the city of Alma to Harlan County Lake, the veterans took in quite the bird’s eye view.
“We flew over town and tipped the wings a little bit so they can see down,” Delong says. “Then we flew down the lake and then came back. I do a little pass down the runway just so the guys can have a little thrill with the speed of the airplane.”
The precious cargo soaked it all in.
“Young people should take time to sit and listen to older people. They have a lot of wisdom, and they have a lot of life experience that they can tell people,” Gennaro says.
A well-deserved journey for Woodruff. He helped clean up Pearl Harbor after it was attacked and spent the rest of his four years fighting in the Pacific.
“Well, I didn’t suppose I’d ever get something like this,” Woodruff says. “Happy to be home. Been a farmer ever since.”
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