"It's never to late too say thank you." That's the message of the Honor Flight Network, a non-profit organization providing free air transportation to World War II and terminally ill veterans to finally see the Washington, D.C. war memorials created for them.
Flights have been taking off around the country since 2005, but it wasn't until Thursday that one left the U.P. Organizer Barb Van Rooy moved to start a program in the U.P. after realizing some in the area would have to travel 12 hours by car to get on an Honor Flight.
Thursday, more than 65 years after the end of World War II, an airplane ramp began a journey 82 World War II veterans had been waiting for for decades: a chance to see their World War II Memorial, completed in 2004.
Upon arrival in Baltimore, the veterans were greeted with a hero's welcome at the airport with cheering and gratitude.
"It's beyond expectation, my gosh they treat us like celebrities," said Navy veteran Shirley Bentagen.
"It brings back all kinds of memories," said Navy veteran Don Buolanger.
The group took a bus to see the World War II, Korean, Vietnam and Iwo Jima Memorials.
Many veterans said they'd been to Washington, D.C. before, but they've never seen the new WWII memorial. If it weren't for the Honor Flight, they wouldn't have been able to.
Later, at Arlington National Cemetery, four U.P. veterans were selected for the prestigious honor of assisting in the wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.
"After we went by the cemetery, seeing all the bodies, it's overwhelming, overwhelming," said Navy veteran Francis Cannon.
On the way home, it was hard to find a dry eye on the plane. Letters from family, friends and even school children on the flight back, thanking our vets for their service, evoked many emotions.
Upon landing in Escanaba, they were greeted with a hometown hero's welcome. Almost 1,000 military members, veterans, family and friends cheered as each veteran came off the plane.
"I feel emotional," says Navy veteran Bob Kuster. "I never believed there were that many people that would come out to say thanks. It's just wonderful."
The cost for all the veterans to go was $75,000. The money was raised locally just since Memorial Day.
"I can't isolate one thing that made it possible. It's such a big community effort, there was help coming from everywhere," Van Rooy said.
Before the first Honor Flight took off, there were more than 80 veterans on the waiting list. U.P. Honor Flight is hoping to have another flight this April, however, they need community help. They still need to raise the entire $75,000 it costs to get the flight off the ground. Ultimately, their goal is to send every willing U.P. veteran to see their memorials before it is too late.
That was also the goal in Henderson County, North Carolina where the program started. In 2007 they became the first county in the nation to fly all of their WWII veterans to the memorial.