First up was the remarkable Tom Rice, who as a paratrooper with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division made the momentous jump into Nazi-occupied Europe on June 6, 1944. This week, the 97-year-old will again parachute into Normandy in a tandem jump to commemorate the anniversary of the World War II turning point, and his story is being followed by a CNN documentary crew and other international media.
A native of Coronado, Calif., Rice received a hero's send off as he departed Los Angeles for Paris with his family on Thursday. A color guard made up of Delta employee veterans stood by as he was escorted into the gate area to applause from Delta employees and customers. The welcome was followed by a brief presentation to honor Tom for his heroism, as well as a water cannon salute for the aircraft as it departed LAX.
"75 years ago, Tom dropped into Normandy on D-Day, so the words 'awesome' and 'hero,' which are thrown around all too often, truly apply to this person and this story," said Kevin Teel, LAX Chief Pilot.
Added LAX-based Captain Pat McCormick, who was the captain of the flight that day, "This is a chance to be with a generation that we'll never be able to thank enough. Delta has the privilege of sponsoring Tom over to Paris and back, and this is one way to say thank you for the sacrifice and commitment he made with the 101st Airborne."I'll be crossing over the channel a little faster than he did the first time, and my request is that Tom stay on this airplane until we get to Paris," McCormick joked.
Rice said later of the trip, "It’s been a marvelous experience, probably one of the greatest things to happen to me in my life."
In Atlanta, Delta served 14 energetic U.S. World War II veterans ranging from ages 93 to 102, also on their way to Normandy via Paris. The group was traveling with Forever Young, a Tennessee-based charity for senior military veterans.
The veterans, including U.S. Army and Navy and one former prisoner of war, came from across the country to meet in Atlanta for their flight to Paris. A celebration featuring balloons, American flags and a snack cart was held in the gate area to honor the heroes. Several customers made their way to the veterans to take photos with them.
After an announcement to recognize the veterans for their heroism, they were escorted down the jet bridge to applause from Delta employees and customers. During the flight Captain McCormick gave a brief announcement detailing each veterans' role during World War II and explaining the purpose of the Forever Young flight.
Their story was followed by an ABC news crew for its Nightline, World News Tonight and ABCNEWS.com platforms.