WWII Vet: Honor Flight was a Humbling Experience

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BRYAN, Texas - The years have long since gone by, but World War II vet Holly Rees remembers his time fighting in the mud and rain like it was yesterday.

In 1944, at the age of 18, Rees joined the U.S. Army. By the time he was 19, he was headed for the shore of Okinawa, Japan, and he'd be lying if he said he didn't have second thoughts.

"If I'd have known then what I found out later, I would have had second and third and umpteenth thoughts," said Rees.

Rees saw many of his friends die on that muddy battlefield.

"I've been thinking about them for 70 years," said Rees. Their lives would probably be parallel to mine. Come back, go to college and get a job. Get married and raise a family."

On the morning of the 21st of June, the U.S. Declared Okinawa was secured. Around 2 that afternoon, Rees was shot in the foot by an enemy sniper.

"It wasn't as secure as they thought it was," said Rees.

That injury would earn Rees a Purple Heart to add to his well decorated military career.

Rees was transported home, but death followed close behind. His brother, who served in the Navy during the war, died in a car crash in 1953.

In 1957, Rees got a job as the District Manager for the Social Security Administration and moved to Bryan with Elizabeth, his wife and the love of his life. She died in April of 2013.

As Rees lives and good friends and family pass on, Rees said the obituaries can be tough to read at times. But every day above ground is a good one.

"I'd rather be reading about it than be one of the ones on the printed page," said Rees.

Recently, Rees, along with 24 other vets of the second world war, were sent to Washington D.C. to visit the World War II Memorial. It was the inaugural flight for Honor Flight Houston, a Houston-based volunteer group who organizes and secures funding for the flights.

The day-long trip was a chance to meet new friends, say goodbye to old ones and remember exactly what it was they were fighting for. Rees even got to meet his longtime hero, Bob Dole.

Back home in Houston, dozens of friends and family packed Hobby Airport to celebrate their homecoming. The vets arrived to cheers, waving flags, handshakes and hugs.

For Rees, who nearly missed the trip because of surgery just a few weeks before, words couldn't quite describe his joy.

"Wonderful, fantastic, super. I can't think of enough superlatives," said Rees.

As the trip becomes yet another memory for the 88-year-old hero, Rees said he was humbled by the experience.

"I felt highly honored, but it was also very humbling to remember all the others that could have been there that weren't," said Rees.

As for his own life, Rees said he's lived a good one.

"Looking back over my 88 years, there's hardly anything that I would change," said Rees.

Rees has written a book about his experiences during the war entitled, Three Flags and Two Brothers.

Rhonda Harshbarger and her husband started Honor Flight Houston last June.

"We've been working since then to get this first flight up off the ground," said Harshbarger. "Most of these guys have never seen their memorial. It was built for them, and we want them to see it."

Harshbarger said it's important to get as many flights in the air as soon as possible.

"Time is of the essence. We're losing these guys at a rate of about 600 a day nationally," said Harshbarger. "So we're trying our best to get every World War II veteran to the memorial."

The next flight is scheduled for June, but Harshbarger said they need more volunteers and sponsors. To learn more, click on the link added to this story.