His entire life, Jeff Miller has liked nothing better than sitting at the side of a World War II veteran listening to stories about the war and life after. It came naturally as the only child of a Navy veteran who served in the Pacific and nephew to an Army Air Corp B-24 bomber pilot who lost his life in 1944 during a bombing run in Czechoslovakia.
“I always had a real passion for the World War II generation,” Jeff said. “I guess some people would say I am obsessed with them. I grew up in an extremely patriotic home.”
Jeff’s childhood neighborhood in Hendersonville, North Carolina, was mostly veterans, he said. As a kid, he heard story after story about the war and was fascinated by American war films like the 1949 “Twelve O’Clock High” and the epic film “Tora! Tora! Tora!” about the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I watched the movies with my father and I just wanted to hear about the war all the time,” he said.
He grew up watching his dad and three uncles run a family dry cleaning business before heading off to college at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. There he majored in recreation management thinking he might run a country club or a racquetball club someday. And, although he eventually returned to his hometown to join the family business, he never dreamed that it would be his interest in WWII that would lead him to help co-found an organization — Honor Flight Network — which has, he said, “acquired a life of its own.”
INTRIGUED BY HISTORY
A big part of Jeff’s intrigue with the war revolved around a trunk filled with military letters and documents his mother refused to allow anyone to see or touch while he was growing up.
“I couldn’t sit on it or open it. It was hands off and not in a nice way,” Jeff said about his mother’s protection of the trunk and its contents. “My mother lost her oldest brother in the war and he had made that trunk for her.”
Jeff’s dad died in 2003 and it was after his mother’s death in 2006 that Jeff was able to view the contents of that trunk.
“I went to the trunk and opened it and found letters from my uncle, the flag from his casket, letters from the military commander and my uncle’s flight log,” he said.
He also found a telegram informing the family of his uncle’s death. His mother was only 17. But, perhaps the most amazing thing he found was his mother’s diary that she had written in every day while her brother was away at war. Now Jeff had his uncle’s flight book, where he had recorded not just a flight record but also his daily activities, and he could compare that to his mother’s notes made stateside. It was fascinating information.
“I just sat on the floor for hours reading one letter after another, the diary and the flight log. He didn’t just record his mission but what they did that day. He didn’t fly with the flight log so it was not lost in the crash and was eventually sent back home with his belongings,” Jeff said.
The family was told that his uncle had died from a direct hit to the cockpit from a missile or anti-aircraft. He, the co-pilot, the nose gunner and the bombardier were all killed and their body parts buried together in one casket in Czechoslovakia. After the war, the casket was returned to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis County, Missouri. Jeff said his mother was able to visit the grave through the years.
HONORING THE ‘GREATEST GENERATION’
Before his parents’ deaths, both he and they had been financial supporters of the National WWII Memorial built between Constitution and Independence Avenues in Washington, D.C. The memorial opened April 29, 2004, and is operated by the National Park Service. Jeff was a charter member of the memorial’s foundation. He had also been involved in other community service activities that included working with the YMCA and the local Boys and Girls Club. He had also helped coordinate veteran visits to the Western North Carolina area.
“Word got out that if any veterans were coming to Hendersonville, I would set things up for them and I would sit and listen to their stories,” he said. “Those veterans loved reunions and we stayed in touch.”
In 2005, Jeff heard about Earl Morse, a retired Air Force captain, private pilot, and physician’s assistant in an Ohio VA Medical Center who was raising funds for a project called Honor Flight. In his position with the VA, Morse was moved to help his WWII patients he felt deserved to visit the monument recognizing the 16 million men and women who served and the some 400,000 who died. Morse had convinced several pilots from his local Air Force aero club to donate a flight to carry two WWII veterans each to see the monument in Washington for a day. Numerous pilots volunteered and on May 21, 2005, six planes flew 12 veterans on the first Honor Flight. The project grew the first year to include 126 veterans transported to the memorial.
By now, Jeff was running the dry cleaning business full time, was married to Tamara and the couple had one son, Beck. In late 2005, he was inspired by Morse to develop a similar, but much larger, plan. He had a goal of taking every WWII veteran in his home county to see the memorial that was built 59 years after the war and too late for so many of the war’s survivors to ever see.
“I read about what Earl was doing and thought it would be fun to spend time with the veterans and honor my parents all at the same time. I told my wife I wanted to do something. I wanted to expand on Earl’s idea and charter a big jet and take every veteran I could to see the memorial,” Jeff said.
His wife was very supportive, he said, but he had no idea how to make his idea work and he knew he could not do it alone. Commercial aircraft would be expensive. He recruited a few “incredible friends” and started meeting with hopes of running the first flight in May 2006.
“People had to pull me back on track. We had to build a realistic timeline so I listened and we made plans for September,” he said.
With up to 1,500 WWII veterans dying each day at that time, Jeff knew things needed to move quickly.
Through some referrals, Jeff connected with a US Airways representative and enthusiastically spilled his idea. Why couldn’t his group charter aircraft that were grounded and not making any money for the airlines, he offered. He wasn’t asking for a free ride, he told them. He would raise money and pay.
“We got an incredible price for renting a jet to carry 186 people up and back in a day,” he said.
With that success, Jeff reached out to local media for support, area Rotary Clubs and anyone who would donate and within 12 weeks, raised $133,000. The county’s Veterans’ Service officer agreed to help coordinate with the veterans.
“We wanted to light a fire and do it right on the front end so we got good media coverage. The calls started coming in and we knew we were onto something big,” Jeff said.
When Jeff tracked down Earl Morse, Morse didn’t want him to use the Honor Flight name, just in case Jeff couldn’t raise enough money to make things work. So Jeff and his team decided on HonorAir. They created a plan that would include taking EMTs, doctors and 50 to 60 guardians on each flight to escort the aged veterans during their visits to the memorial. Each flight would land to a welcome ceremony.
“As the program grew and we got bigger with larger planes and more buses, it kind of acquired a life of its own,” Jeff said.
Several commercial airline partners began flights out of the Asheville Regional Airport and Jeff said things “worked like a charm.” What developed as a huge part of each visit was the Welcome Home with hundreds — and later thousands — of people turning out to greet the veterans on their return.
“Little kids would be there to welcome and cheer the veterans. Veterans would be bawling because they were so happy. The welcome home is every bit as important as the day in D.C., especially to the Vietnam vets who came home to ridicule. You can’t blow away all those bad memories, but you can sure stack some good ones on top of it. It’s hard to even talk about it without getting choked up,” Jeff said.
DEVELOPING THE HONOR FLIGHT NETWORK
Jeff and Earl met in person for the first time in Washington on Sept. 23, 2006, the day of HonorAir’s first flight. The two then decided to create a “Mother Ship” to combine efforts into one place for disseminating information and for gaining bargaining power. A summit was held in February 2007 and since Earl had begun the first program, it was agreed to call it the Honor Flight Network. The program branched out across the nation with development of Regional Honor Flight hubs in 42 states to reach veterans in different parts of the country. With the rapid decline of WWII veterans, the program began to also serve Korean War and Vietnam War veterans with WWII vets always going to the front of the list.
In his local area, Jeff serves as president of HonorAir, Inc., and is founder of Blue Ridge Honor Flight, in addition to being co-founder and former president of the Honor Flight Network’s national board.
“I have a board here that is just incredible. My credit is for having really smart and passionate friends. The only way it works is to put a hell of a team together,” Jeff said. “It is about a team and their mission.”
All of his and his team’s efforts to honor veterans are donated, he said. He noted that only a few hubs across the nation have any paid staff due to the number of flights they are making each year. For example, he said Chicago has such a strong hub it raises millions of dollars and does 15 flights a year. Locally, he said, they make two to four flights a year but will likely miss much or all of 2020 due to the pandemic crisis and the risk of taking already health compromised veterans on a trip.
THE OVERALL PICTURE
To date, the Blue Ridge Honor Flight hub has flown 36 flights to Washington with about 100 veterans per flight, Jeff said. Jeff’s push to take Honor Flight national has been a huge success and he has spent many hours traveling the country to help set up programs and even flying with some of the other hub flights, a sacrifice his family has been honored to make.
Humbly, he said the only time he really takes a hard look at the magnitude of the Honor Flight Network and its accomplishments honoring heroes who sacrificed to keep America free is when he is in Washington, D.C.
“When I am there, it is just, ‘Wow.’ Otherwise, it is just a piece of the puzzle. But, man, when it is one of those days with so many veterans at the memorial, it is surreal. I get misty eyed,” he said.
Visiting the memorial with the veterans has meant so much to Jeff, he said he could never go back without them. The 16 million Americans that served in WWII are all now in their 90s with a daily death rate of more than 362, according to the U.S. Veterans Affairs, which also lists the last death of a WWI veteran in 2012. So the reality of no more WWII vets left to visit the memorial is not that far away.
The work of the Honor Flight Network, which has already served some 230,000 mostly WWII veterans, will continue with the veterans of other wars as they are honored for their service to America. They will also be transported to the memorials of their respective wars at no cost to them. Efforts made by Jeff Miller and Earl Morse to honor veterans will long be remembered. The two men were recognized by Sen. Bob Dole in 2008 when he nominated them for the Presidential Citizens Medal, one of the highest civilian awards given in the U.S., second only to the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A presentation was made to them that year in the Oval Office by President George W. Bush.
Anyone interested in the program, how to support the movement or how to help a veteran get listed on a flight anywhere in the U.S., can visit HonorFlight.org or in Jeff’s local area at BlueRidgeHonorFlight.com