Because it was the Depression, Hughlene Stokes’ daddy could not hire help on the farm. At 8, she helped out by plowing their East Texas fields with a mule. In 1940, she married at 16 and three years later Stokes hopped on a train to San Diego.
While her husband was in the Navy training sailors how to evacuate ships, Stokes had her own job, the first that wasn’t on a farm.
“All the women took over the men’s jobs because all the men had to go fight the war,” Stokes said. “Women didn’t do public work back then.”
The women worked in different areas and were called Rosies. Stokes was Rosie, the Riveter.
“We were welding rivets across the material of the plane to make it stronger. The metal was real thin,” she said of her assembly line duties. “We put strips across on the inside to make it stronger.”
Honor Flight is a nonprofit dedicated to flying military veterans to Washington D.C. It’s the reason Stokes was at Dallas Love Field Friday morning instead of at the farm she grew up in, where she has been living alone since her husband died 20 years ago.
“I never dreamed I’d ever get to go and see it,” Stokes said of the second world war memorial. “It’s something to know that I was a part of that history.”
She waited to board a plane with 39 veterans, their guardians and her granddaughter Stephanie Davis, who contacted the organization to see if it had room for a Rosie.
The nonprofit began after President George W. Bush dedicated the National World War II Memorial in 2004, Honor Flight Vice President Terry Kasen said.
“Because it took so long for them to build it, many of the World War II guys were already well into their 80s and 90s and unable to go on their own,” he said. “The organization got its start because a bunch of us wanted to take World War II veterans to see the memorial that they’d never seen.”
The number of World War II veterans is declining, thus the DFW branch of Honor Flight now brings Korean era vets along, Kasen said. The oldest veteran in the group will turn 98 in December.
Honor Flight covers all of the veteran traveling expenses. That’s about $40,000 to $45,000 per trip. There are about four trips a year. This is trip number 31. Vice President Terry Kasen said the nonprofit is community-funded and has no paid staff.
“The veterans, we don’t let them pay a nickel. We don’t let them buy a cup of coffee,” Kasen said. “Every bit of money we raise goes towards the safe and secure transport of our veterans.
Veteran Laura Mays said he was chasing his wife-to-be when he moved to Dallas at 17. The two have been married for 72 years. Mays was in the Navy for 15 months, towards the end of World War II. He served in the Pacific, where he transported troops and supplies by ship. His duties were in the engine room. He said he had no fear whatsoever.
“About 80 percent of us were 18, 19 years old taking on great responsibilities,” said Mays, who was 18 at the time. “It’s just unbelievable what they would have you doing and they train you in such a rapid pace that you have to take hold of what they tell you and be ready to serve.”
Mays said his ship picked up the first prisoners of war who were released when World War II ended. The ship made two trips to pick up prisoners: one to Tokyo and the next to Akita.
Mays returned to North Texas and settled down in Irving. He traveled with Honor Flight DFW on trip number eight. While Mays said the memorials were great, he was moved by the recognition he received in the parks.
“They would come up and thank you, even small children, ‘Thank you for your service,’” he said. “Individually we were greeted by so many people that you don’t realize, and I haven’t over the years, how great I guess it was to serve in World War II.”
In 2015, Mays was one of 12 selected to represent the DFW veterans in a Pearl Harbor Honor Flight back to the east coast. He recalled laying a wreath at the unknown soldiers grave and at the World War II Memorial.
“It was such an honor and you just can’t believe it’s happening to you,” he said with a wavering voice. He paused as tears formed in his eyes. “Of course, 12 of us represented the armed forces, which had millions of people, and to be selected as one to do that, it was the greatest honor that I’ve ever received.”
Mays started attending each boarding thereafter to send Honor Flight groups off with a prayer. When the 36-hour trip concludes, he attends the welcoming in the airport arrival area. He said he was welcomed home after his first trip by about 300 people, comprised of family, citizens and media.
Trip number 31 will arrive back in Dallas at 10 p.m. on flight 1298. Kasen said anybody can welcome home the veterans.
“We encourage folks to come out Saturday night to Welcome Home at Love Field,” Kasen said.
To see how you can volunteer with, apply for or donate to Honor Flight DFW go to honorflightdfw.org.