BRADENTON — Bill Gutbrod and Del Kiefer have been to Washington, D.C., before.
Gutbrod honeymooned there.
Kiefer visited the Korean War Memorial with his wife to honor her first husband, killed in that conflict.
Both men return Sept. 26, a trip bound to be memorable.
They’ll be among 13 Manatee County World War II veterans, guests of Southwest Florida Honor Flight for a one-day journey to visit the World War II Memorial and other solemn monuments. The Disabled American Veterans Chapter 18 in Bradenton is paying their way.
“This will be a first for me,” said Gutbrod, 85, who fought with the 517th Parachute Infantry in Europe. “I’m looking forward to it.”
So is Kiefer, who was with the 10th Armored Division in Europe.
“I’ve never seen it,” the 86-year-old said of the memorial. “I don’t know what memories it’ll bring back, but this is a nice gesture.”
An important one, too.
Between 850 and 1,000 WWII veterans are dying daily, according to published figures.
Hence, there’s an urgency to the trip.
“We’re losing so many of them, most of these people don’t have a chance to get up there,” said Ken Boggs, DAV 18’s commander. “It’s the reason why the club wanted to do it. It’s the last shot at seeing their own memorial.”
DAV 18 is paying for transportation to and from Fort Myers, two nights in a hotel, as well the flight at a cost of $6,000.
“The membership supported it totally,” said Boggs, a Navy veteran during the Vietnam War.
The WWII Memorial was opened in 2004 and National Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization, was founded a year later to get WWII veterans there.
All they must do is fill out an application.
“The first time you talk to them about it, they think you’re joking. Then they find out it’s for real,” said Don Vecoli, founder/president of Southwest Florida Honor Flight in Charlotte County, who organized the trip and spoke last Saturday to the veterans at DAV 18.
Last year, the national organization sent more than 17,000 WWII veterans, he said. This year’s goal is 25,000.
“There’s no government or corporate funding for this. It’s all grassroots support,” said Vecoli, a retired 26-year Navy veteran.
The Manatee WWII veterans are among 70 traveling Sept. 26 and will receive an honor guard at both Fort Myers International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington International Airport.
“It’s an unbelievable experience,” Vecoli said.
In addition to the WWII Memorial, the vets will visit the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Navy Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial.
They’ll also see Arlington Cemetery and place a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.