On August 1st, our own National University Hall of Fame Honoree Melvin J. Collins, was chosen to join the Chicago Honor Flight to Washington, DC. The Honor Flight is a program that thanks World War II veterans and celebrates them as heroes with a special flight to and from our nation’s capital. In DC, they are escorted on a one-day tour of historic monuments and capital sights.
Melvin Collins works for National University in the Office of Admissions, but took the day off for the adventure. The Honor Flight day begins bright and early at 4 am, as each veteran is picked up at their home and taken to Midway airport. There, they are greeted by a host of volunteers, who give each veteran VIP treatment before boarding the plane. Each veteran is matched with a volunteer “guardian” who sees that the veteran is comfortable and well cared for the entire trip.
“They took care of us as if we were family. We were cheered and serenaded every step of the way,” says Mel.
Once in DC, Mel’s group had a busy day of sightseeing. They saw the Iwo Jima Memorial, the National World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. As a special side trip, the veterans were able to visit the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar Hazy Center, home to the Enola Gay.
The trip was full of surprises. On one bus, the group was entertained with songs from an Andrew Sisters look-alike ensemble. On another bus ride, the group joined together to sing patriotic songs. At the airport, dancers dressed in garb from the 30s and 40s did nightclub dances to tunes popular during wartime.
On the flight back to Chicago, a volunteer from Chicago Honor Flight let the veterans know it was “mail call” time. Each veteran received an envelope packed full of cards and letters from their families wishing them well on their trip, and also letters from students, community groups, and from political dignitaries such as President Obama, the Mayor of Chicago and the Governor of Illinois. The letters thanked the heroes for their service, praising them as part of the “greatest generation.”
“This was the most wonderful time I have ever had in my entire life,” says Mel. “It was the most beautifully organized program I have ever seen.”
National University is proud that Melvin J. Collins has his own historic place in our national history, due to his heroic role in the Pacific Theater in World War II. He helped set forth a new naval strategy for performing a swimming rescue of downed airmen. Collins would dive off the side of his ship during combat, with a rope tied around his waist, and swim out in open sea to downed American planes. In the icy water, facing death himself, he would often be able to rescue the pilot just minutes before the plane would sink or burst into flames. His ship rescued 22 pilots in this manner, earning Mel the Bronze Star as well as the Navy and Marine Corps medal for his World War II career.
Mel’s story was discovered by writer Brian T. Murphy and published in a national veterans magazine. You can read it here on National University’s website.
The Chicago Honor Flight program is looking for other World War II veterans in the Chicago area to honor in upcoming flights. If you are a WWII veteran or know a WWII veteran, visit their website for more information.