Amid the morning rush of airport traffic Wednesday sat Herbert Franklin, 89, set to embark on a journey he looked forward to but also dreaded.
The Friendsville resident who grew up in Sevier County was one of the 132 veterans being flown to Washington, D.C., as part of HonorAir Knoxville. Veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam received the all-expense-paid day trip as a tribute to their heroism in service to their country.
Franklin, who joined the U.S. Army in 1945 and served during both WWII and Korea, was a member of the 101st Airborne Division and jumped from planes more than 50 times.
“After that, I quit counting,” he said as he waited for the flight at McGhee Tyson Airport. “When they told you to jump, you jumped.”
This was the veteran’s first trip to the nation’s capital to see the war memorials. He said he has a cousin, Buford Loveday, who served in Germany and never came back. Franklin also has three brothers, all deceased — Robert Melvin Franklin, Eugene Franklin and James C. Franklin. All set aside personal lives for duty and love of country. They did come home.
Eddie Mannis, founder and chairman of HonorAir, addressed the veterans before they boarded the American Airlines jet. He said so far, HonorAir has taken more than 3,300 East Tennessee veterans on the same trip.
On this particular one, the 26th, there were 132 veterans. Eight were from WWII, 23 from Korea and 101 from Vietnam. The day is spent touring the World War II, Korean, Vietnam War, Marine and Air Force memorials before returning to McGhee Tyson late Wednesday.
The youngest on the flight was 65; the oldest 98. Three female veterans were included.
Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett were in attendance, showing their respect and gratitude.
Wounds of war
Franklin suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He enlisted at the age of 17 and re-enlisted to serve in Korea. Memories, faces, sounds are dredged up from a time he sometimes wishes he could forget. He said there are people who call him a hero, but he quickly corrects them.
“The ones who didn’t come back, they are the heroes,” Franklin said. “I waded through the water, the mud and the blood of our heroes.”
Navy veteran Jack Skidmore stood talking with others set to board the flight. He served from 1966-68 in Vietnam. Also suffering from PTSD, Skidmore said he was going to D.C. to help him with the crisis he deals with.
“I know it won’t work,” he said.
Skidmore remembers coming home from Vietnam. Soldiers wore their uniforms on charter flights into the U.S., but were told not to fly home wearing them. Some were spit upon, he said, though thankfully he wasn’t.
He was aboard cargo ships that were responsible for getting heavy artillery into Vietnam ports like Danang. The Tet Offensive started five weeks after he got there.
We operated out of Danang,” he said. “They loaded us up with 150 tons of cargo, and we went into one of three ports. Those ports were sandy beaches with ramps. We unloaded as fast as possible and got out of there.”
He was 21.
Blount County native Ralph Miller first joined the Marine Corps in 1957. His service to his country lasted 27 years. That included time in both the Marines and Air Force. His tours included one in Cambodia, in 1961, before the Vietnam War was escalating.
Remembering fallen comrades
This was his first time seeing the memorials honoring his fallen comrades. One of them, Jimmy Fox, died in the Vietnam War. Miller said he was going to find his name on the Vietnam War Memorial wall. Fox also was a Marine.
Because Miller joined in 1957, he said there were still veterans from World War II serving at that time.
“I didn’t think about it at the time, but how honorable it was to be with them,” he said.
Words wouldn’t come when Miller was asked how he will feel coming face-to-face with that past as he was set to tour D.C. He said he always has been grateful for being one of those who came back. Anytime he gets to talk with fellow veterans is time well spent.
“If you talk to another veteran and shake his hand, it’s like you’ve always known them,” he said.
Franklin had a difficult time talking about such losses of life. He came home, married his high school sweetheart and raised four sons. Seldom a day goes by that he doesn’t think about those who never got the chance.
“I am thankful for every one of them,” he said.