On a trip to Washington last April to meet with his congressional delegation, WXII Greensboro/Winston-Salem President/General Manager Hank Price spied one of those rare chances to connect with his community and make an impact for the better. He saw a crew of 100 World War II veterans stepping off an airplane to great public fanfare at Reagan National Airport.
Their trip was part of a program called HonorAir, which brings the vets tothe nation's capital for a day of seeing the various war memorials and spending time with old combat colleagues.
Price figured there was an opportunity to get WXII—and the ever-shrinking pool of WW II veterans living in DMA No. 46—involved in the program. On July 4, the Hearst station began promoting its Triad Flight of Honor campaign on-air, getting donations from the public, seeking veterans who might want to take the one-day trip, and working with the Rotary Club and HonorAir to fly them to Washington.
WXII's first chartered flight took off Oct. 3, and a second group of 100 veterans made the trip Oct. 28. WXII has been covering the story with live reports, both when the planes take off for D.C. and when the war heroes return at the end of the day.
“In all my years in television,” Price says, “this is the most emotional thing I've ever seen.”
Stars of the screen
WXII has given the vets program considerable screen time. The flight on Oct. 3, a Saturday, got 3½ hours of live coverage in the morning and another 1½ hours in prime when the gentlemen returned to Greensboro's airport. With as many as a dozen cameras at the packed airport, WXII went live from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. on Oct. 28, a Wednesday, then again from 8:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. (The local Rotary Club picks the dates.)
According to Price, the events have gotten “significant viewership,” but that's almost beside the point. “It has nothing to do with ratings and nothing to do with revenue,” he says. “It's our responsibility to be a force that's able to bring the community together.”
Flight of Honor indeed has hit home with viewers in North Carolina's Triad region. Price mentions girls hosting a lemonade stand and earning $500 so they could sponsor their own veteran; to date, the station has raised $250,000 toward the program.
Marion Zollicoffer, a former “torpedo man” on a submarine during WW II, was on the Oct. 3 flight. He says he was humbled to spend the day with men who he believes made a more significant contribution during the war: prisoners of war, and some who took part in the Bataan Death March in the Philippines. He swelled with pride when he heard an orchestra greeting the arrivals at Reagan Airport. “At 85, I've had a lot of good days,” he says. “But this one was right at the top.”
Ivey Redmon, who spent 17 months in combat across Europe as a communications sergeant, says he saw the program on WXII and wrote a letter to the station, telling them he wanted to make the Washington trip. He was on the Oct. 28 flight, and mentions memorable pilgrimages to the Vietnam, Korean and World War II memorials, along with a stirring visit to the Iwo Jima statue. There were also emotional meetings with a host of legislators, including North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole and her husband, Bob.
Redmon, 86, says Flight of Honor has helped educate younger generations about World War II, and helped him reestablish ties with his fellow patriots. While many say the veterans of that war never got full appreciation for their service, Redmon says he'll never forget the heroes' welcome from 1,500 cheering people at the Greensboro airport. “They thanked me and the vets for what we did,” he says. “It made you stand up and be tall.”
Zollicoffer, for one, got a kick out of being on television. “My friends tell me, 'Now you're a TV star!'” he says with a laugh. “'Let me get your autograph.'”
WXII will resume the veterans' flights, which cost around $50,000 apiece, in the spring when the weather is more suitable for a day trip. Price says the station will work with HonorAir until every willing WW II veteran in the DMA gets his day in Washington. “People thank us constantly for doing this, but I have to say—we're the ones who've had the best time with it,” he says. “It's what local television is all about.”
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