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Ordinary Heroes: A Series---Nell Smith Lutz and the World War II Honor Flights

by Penne J. Laubenthal

This feature is the first in a series about ordinary heroes—those persons who live next door or just across town, people we see every day who have, in their own quiet and special way, made the world a better place to live in.

Last month in my blog about amazing nonagenarians, I wrote about Nell Smith Lutz . Nell is still in her 80s, but her husband Frank turned 97 in October of 2008. Nell and Frank, who were married in 1945, right in the middle of World War II, will celebrate their 64th wedding anniversary this August.

After the war, Nell and Frank made their home in Athens, Alabama, where they reared their three children: Brobson, Tom, and Ruth. Tom and his wife live in Nashville, Tennessee, Ruth and her husband live in Athens, and Brobson is an Infectious Disease Physician who makes his home in the French Quarter. Dr. Lutz is affectionately known as the "surgeon general" of New Orleans. Watch Swampland for upcoming features on Dr. Lutz.

Two weeks ago on Saturday, April 25th, Nell flew to Washington, DC, as a guest of Honor Flight to visit the World War II Memorial. According to 2008 statistics, we are losing World War II veterans at the rate of approximately 1,000 per day. Honor Flight was formed to fulfill the dreams of those who served during WW II by transporting them to the World War II Memorial absolutely free. The inaugural Honor Flight took place in May of 2005. Six small planes flew out of Springfield, Ohio, taking twelve WW II veterans on a visit to the memorial. The Honor Flight Network has an aggressive goal for 2009 —to transport 25,000 veterans from across the United States to the World War II Memorial. The program presently has 71 hubs in 30 states. By the end of 2009, Honor Flight Network hopes to have a hub in all 50 states.

Nell, who was a WAVE during the Second World War, wrote her parents the following letter on August 27 of 1943.

"Dearest Mother and Daddy,

"Midshipman Smith reporting !! Our seamen days ended tonight when Miss Disert, the new officer in charge of Midshipmen, swore us in after they had given us the most inspiring lecture I ever listened to in my life. If we had been released right then and there not a person in the auditorium would have stopped till she had done everything in her power to win this war. We can't go overseas but just wait...with all our officers backing us up we will get to do just as much over here. And at present everybody around here has the idea that lots of us will get to go to a few places like Alaska, Puerto Rico, etc. Don't get any ideas now 'cause the U.S. is big enough for me!

"The seamen arrive Saturday and Dorian and I are all set to go meet them at the station and 'hup' them to the campus. I can't wait to see all those spike heels, funny civilian hats and all the costumes they'll have on. Love to all, Nell"  (photo of Nell Stapleton Smith the day she got her midshipman’s cap)

I asked Nell what is was like to be transported to Washington, DC, and to be honored for her service in WW II some sixty odd years later. Here is her account of that momentous day.

"First of all, I must say that I cannot imagine how any group can get such a flight planned and executed in the manner that this one was done. Hours and hours of planning had to be incorporated into working out all the many, many details.

"We had instructions to report to the airport at Huntsville at 0500 yesterday. The night before Frank and Tom set four different clocks just to be sure we heard one of them. Needless to say I didn't get much sleep as I was just too excited to sleep! Ruth was here right on time (4:l5) and we took off for Huntsville International Airport. Our guardians met us there and as we went to board the plane we were greeted by a band and countless number of well-wishers.They even had a bag piper there! When a group of young women from Fort. Bragg came up to wish me well , I was just overcome. They were all dressed in World War II uniforms. People were lined up on both sides of us as we were taken to the plane, and all had outstretched palms and words of gratitude to all of us WWII veterans! Tears came quickly for me .

"Soon we all were in our assigned seats on the plane and we sat there for some time before take off. The well-wishers went to the top of the building and waved and waved as our plane finally went up into the sky. A light breakfast was served and before we knew it, we had arrived at Ronald Reagan airport. Our pilot announced to us just
before we landed that we would be greeted with a water salute!!!! Huge fire hoses greeted our plane! Soon we were off the plane and found there was a band there to greet us and lots and lots of people of all ages. Little children waving flags touched me deeply.

"There were five buses waiting for us. My guardian and I were assigned to bus #2 and before we knew it we arrived at World War II Memorial. We visited here quite some time before boarding the buses and heading for the Women's Memorial. Lunch boxes were ready for us there in the air conditioned building. By now the temp was up to 85 degrees! While at this memorial I checked on several friends' registrations (including
my own) . Sherry , my guardian, had a wonderful camera and made pictures for me. We also visited the Iwo Jima memorial which was so much larger than I had ever dreamed it would be. A special recognition was given to the Marine veterans in our group while we were there. The last thing we did before boarding the plane was to tour parts of Washington. Lots of tulips and cherry trees were still in bloom. We rode by the White House, and I tried to see the new puppy !

"We had a nice trip home. I noticed many veterans and also guardians were napping! I sat close to the Army nurse and enjoyed chatting with her. She is just ninety-one! The other lady veteran was in the WAVES and worked on airplanes in Miami during the war. Later she became a flight attendant and when one of the group learned this, they asked her if she would like to serve cold drinks to the veterans! She seemed to enjoy doing this.

"Our oldest vet was 94 and youngest was 80!

"There was a huge reception waiting for us when we got off the plane in Huntsville. I had such a wonderful surprise when I saw Frank there as I had not thought he would feel like going over to the airport. Ruth and David, Tom, Daniel, and Kanthi and Dave [members of Nell’s family] were all there to welcome me home along with many, many other people – and a band!.

"Needless to say the trip is one I shall never ever forget so long as I live!! It was beyond my wildest expectations! It took countless numbers of people to plan and execute such a trip and I feel so indebted to each one. I wish I could have kept up with the number of
people who came up to me, shook my hand, and thanked me for what I did during the war. I would tell them that I enjoyed every minute of the time I spent in the Navy...and I really did!"

In October of 2008, Nell’s husband Frank  celebrated his 97th birthday with a canoe-shaped cake baked by their daughter Ruth. I would like to conclude this tribute with a quote from Will Rogers and the motto of Honor Flight.:  "We can’t all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they go by." 

Nell and Frank, I salute you.

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