Louis Williams landed at the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport Tuesday night to a hero’s welcome. Leis were draped around his neck, people posed for photos with him and he received cards of thanks.
The 84-year-old U.S. Army and Air Force veteran was among 68 military veterans who were celebrated that night as they returned from a whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C., where they visited the nation’s war memorials.
The free, one-day round trip was organized by Honor Flight of West Central Florida, which recognizes American veterans for their sacrifice and service.
For Williams, the experience was gratifying. “Just seeing the Air Force Memorial,” he said. And the welcome back home by those who came out to show appreciation for the veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Shield and Desert Storm was overwhelming.
“It’s just good to know that some people recognize certain things,” said Williams, who was in Vietnam for a year while in the Air Force.
“It was the most stressful year of my life,” he recalled of the Vietnam War, mentioning his 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. shifts. The enemy, he said, “only attacked us in the night.” He received a commendation medal for his service during the war.
It was at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post, 49th Street S and 18th Avenue in St. Petersburg – one of two all-Black VFWs in the state – that he learned about the Honor Flight program. Another VFW member had made the trip.
Williams applied for a chance to go two years ago, but the pandemic caused organizers to call a temporary halt to the program. This week’s trip to the nation’s capital was only the second since the flights resumed locally.
“Unfortunately, we do have a waiting list,” said Beverly Ann Frey, president of Honor Flight of West Central Florida, which is a regional hub of the national Honor Flight network. Since its founding in 2010, the local group has sent 3,095 veterans to D.C.
Veterans on this week’s Honor Flight – Mission 42 – first stopped at the U.S. Air Force Memorial, allowing, Frey noted, for a perfect view of Arlington Cemetery and the Pentagon. The group also drove by the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial and stopped at the World War II Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.
Along with four years in the Air Force, Williams did two stints in the Army, for a total of 13 years of military service. Times were different when he first signed up for the Army in 1955, he said. “Prior to our entrance exams, we had to spend a night in Jacksonville and we stayed overnight in separate quarters. Blacks, one place, and whites in another.”
Race was also an issue when he joined the St. Petersburg Police Department in 1959. “It was kind of rough. We couldn’t arrest white people. Then we had to live in the same neighborhood with the Black people we arrested and that was kind of stressful,” he said.
Williams would join and leave the police department twice, in between serving in the military. He was with the force before the historic 1965 lawsuit filed by a group of Black officers – the Courageous Twelve – who sought equality with the city’s white officers.
Williams had challenged the system in his own way earlier. He and another Black officer arrested a white man and took him to jail. And, “I was the first one to use the shower stalls” at the police station, he said.
The military offered better opportunities, he said. “When the Vietnam War broke out, they reinstated the G.I. Bill and that’s how I went to school.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree in health education from the University of South Florida and worked as a substitute teacher for four years in Pinellas County public schools. In 2003, he retired as a mail carrier with the U.S. Postal Service after 31 years.
The St. Pete native, who still attends Trinity Presbyterian Church, where his mother first took him as an infant, is battling throat cancer. He was happy to be able to return to D.C., which he had visited about 20 years ago to see the Vietnam Memorial.
He’s grateful to the Honor Flight organization and its volunteers. In fact, “More than grateful,” he said.
The free flights are made possible through support from the community, Frey said. “People will do fundraisers for us. We raise money however we can. We receive no government funding,” she said.
Each veteran is paired with a guardian, who can be a family member, but the companions make a donation to go on the trip. “We have guardians who have done it 10 times,” said Frey.
She herself got involved with the group after moving with her husband, Peter, from the D.C. area, where they had volunteered to meet and greet military members for the American Legion at Reagan National Airport. Peter Frey also is a veteran, having served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
The local Honor Flight group flies veterans from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Polk and Hernando, though those who want to make the trip are not restricted to those counties.
Frey said many veterans don’t realize that they can be on an Honor Flight. “A lot of them feel that they didn’t go to a war zone or serve during a military action. If a veteran has worn a uniform for any of the branches of service, they qualify for an Honor Flight … A lot of them think, ‘I didn’t do anything to deserve it,’ especially the older people. We have to convince them that they really want to go.”
There’s an application on the organization’s website (honorflightwcf.org). Top priority is given to World War II veterans, and veterans who are terminally ill.
For this week’s flight, Williams had to be at the airport before dawn, 4 a.m. to be exact. His wife, Jacqueline, got him there from their Greater Pinellas Point apartment to catch the Allegiant Air charter flight.
“I had been looking forward to it,” the grandfather of seven said, still savoring the experience days after his return. “I’m going to try and get some other people, including my brother, to take the trip.”