South Forsyth resident Henrik “Hank” Gahn has led a pretty quiet life for the most part.
But during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., the retired advertising executive “felt like a celebrity.”
Gahn, 87, was one of 25 Georgia World War II veterans who were chosen to take part in a spring Honor Flight to the nation’s capital.
Through the national Honor Flight Network, which Gahn learned about due to his involvement with American Legion Post 307 in Cumming, World War II veterans are flown to the nation’s capital for a day of tours and honors, all in recognition of their service.
Any veteran of that war can register to take part in an Honor Flight, all of which depart from a number of “hubs” across the country, including Atlanta.
The name of the program alone appealed to Gahn, who was in Army Air Corps Flight School, training to be a pilot in Texas, when the war ended in 1945.
“I didn’t get to serve overseas because the war ended on me,” he said.
“I loved to fly and all I had done in high school was dream about being a pilot, so when the war ended I was a sad sack.”
After the war, he went to work for a small beer brewery in its sales and marketing department. He ended up spending his entire career working for different breweries.
That’s also how he met his wife of 57 years, Patricia. She was his first secretary.
The couple relocated to Forsyth County in 2001 from Indianapolis to be closer to their son and daughter-in-law, Rick and Emily, who live in Cherokee County.
He immediately joined the local American Legion and later learned of the Honor Flight program, first applying to take part about three years ago.
After being put on a waiting list, he got the call in March that he had been chosen for an upcoming Georgia Honor Flight.
“I actually had forgotten all about it,” Gahn said.
His wife had passed away in November 2011. When he got the call, Gahn said he was still feeling the impacts of the loss. The thought of a special trip raised his spirits a bit.
“I was still feeling lower than the proverbial you know what, so I said I wanted to go,” he said.
The event started later in March with a meet and greet event, where Gahn had the chance to be introduced to the other veterans, as well as volunteers who would be paired with each veteran to help them on the day of the trip.
On April 17, the veterans and volunteers gathered in Conyers at 4 a.m. before taking buses to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for an early morning flight.
“We took off from Conyers and headed for the airport and we didn’t realize it, but we were going to have an escort all the way from Conyers to the airport,” he said. “We had police escorts, state police, Conyers Police, so about 40 or 50 motorcycles all with bright blue lights flashing all the way.
“We were all amazed because these police were moving everybody over to the side of the road and we were going by them.”
Once they arrived at the airport, Gahn said they were immediately shuttled to their plane in which a special area was reserved just for the group.
They arrived in Washington, D.C., about 8:30 a.m. Their first stop was at the World War II Memorial, which opened in 2009. Other destinations included the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the Pentagon, the Internal Revenue Service headquarters, and Arlington National Cemetery, where they watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.
“We were going all day and we just didn’t stop,” he said.
Gahn said that probably the best part of the day was the response the group received from people everywhere they went.
“It was all really super and not the least of things was the people that we encountered who weren’t part of our group,” he said. “We got applause everywhere we went … kids would come running up to you saying, ‘Thank you for your service’ and just on and on.”
Before heading back to Atlanta, each veteran also received a manila envelope full of thank-you cards from Washington, D.C., area school children.
“None of that was expected,” Gahn said.
“There’s no way to explain how great it was, and all completely unexpected. It was all wonderful and we were all just astounded.”