For nearly two years Old Glory Honor Flight has been taking World War II veterans from northeast Wisconsin to see their memorial in Washington D.C.
On April 7, I was honored to be a a guardian on the first flight of 2011, and the seventh mission overall.
Guardians care for veterans while they enjoy their trip to Washington D.C. Guardians like myself come in all shapes and sizes and from all backgrounds. Some guardians are doctors and EMT’s who are part of the medical support group. Others are Vietnam Vets who want to help, or relatives of the veterans from the Greatest Generation. In my case, my father was a WWII vet who didn’t get to see his memorial. I wanted to help someone else realize that dream.
No matter what our background, we guardians were there to serve the World War II veterans. For guardians, the flight starts by filling out a simple application, and, once approved, paying a fee that helps the Old Glory Honor Flight’s efforts. Two weeks prior to the trip we attend a two-hour training session.
Drew and Diane MacDonald are the driving force behind Northeast Wisconsin’s hub, and do an excellent job of coordinating volunteer guardians, medical staff and their board of directors, who are all active in the process. Local business owners Tony and Lorraine VanKampen are part of the board and help to coordinate these efforts.
The day of the flight was a long one, no doubt, but it was filled with excitement, pride, some heartfelt conversations and the wonder of seeing Washington D.C. unfold before us.
It started at 5 a.m., as 94 veterans, who are in their eighties and nineties, converged upon Outagamie Airport, along with 64 guardians and support staff. In my case, that’s when I met up with two veterans selected for me. Other guardians were arriving with their veteran, a family member. We helped the veterans through security, removing jackets, belts, etc., and putting them together again.
The flight from Appleton to Reagan National Airport takes under two hours. I got to know my guys a little on the plane.
Burt King is from Oshkosh, a Navy man now in his eighties, who came back to the states after his tour and bought a dress manufacturing plant. “That’s the first opportunity that came up and that’s what I ended up doing for 40 years,” he said. Burt was charming, unassuming, and very polite. He was amazed at the timing and logistics of the day.
Jim (or Jimmy) Johnson, age 87, hails from Oconto Falls, and is another Navy veteran. I felt doubly lucky, as my father was in the Navy, too. I had something in common with them from the start. Jimmy was a talker, a little timid with his walking, who did an incredible job getting on the plane.
During the flight, we received a list of all guardians and veterans on the flight, and once I went down the list, I saw that Don Dent (Army) and Russ Volz (Army) of New London were on the flight, as well as Ken Wege from Clintonville. Ray Schalkowski (Navy) from Weyauwega made the trip too.
It’s not always easy being understood or hearing your veteran, as the sound of the engine and hearing aids don’t always mix, but we did the best we could. Once on the ground in Washington, it took a good amount of time to unload wheelchairs and some of these frail veterans, so patience was a virtue. Conversation was rich with stories and ‘getting to know each other’ facts.
At Reagan National Airport we met up with our red, white and blue tour buses, and transferred our veterans and 60 wheelchairs so that we could get on our way and see our first glimpse at Washington. Many were surprised that we had a guided tour. The guide, Dale, contained a wealth of information about the area. She relayed the beginnings of the World War II memorial, with Senator Bob Dole fighting a law suit with his own money to have the memorial placed on the capitol’s mall.
Upon unloading the bus, both my veterans decided to take the offer of a wheel chair, and a fellow guardian, Mark Sellners, stepped in to help out. He’s a perfect example of what guardians do for the veterans. Throughout the day he checked in on us, pairing with Burt to give him a “ride” at each location. When loading and unloading wheelchairs, certain guardians stepped in to assure the veterans entered and exited the buses in the easiest manner possible.
None of us were prepared for the grandness of the World War II Memorial. With 50 columns holding wreaths, the memorial surrounded a beautiful reflecting pool. Standing next to the Wisconsin column and getting photographed there was a highlight for the veterans. We visited the reflecting pool with its fountains rising up past the height of the columns, and read the engraved marble that included quotes from famous leaders. One quote especially moved our two veterans: “They fought together as brothers-in-arms. They died together and now they sleep side by side. To them we have a solemn obligation.”
After a group photo, we had time to spend at each section of the memorial, even taking a walk around the perimeter and finding Kilroy hiding near a service entrance, a surprise from the engravers at the memorial.
Upon loading the bus we received a delicious boxed lunch and were able to enjoy this while seeing a tour of the city for a full hour’s time. My veterans were impressed by everything they saw and the gratitude showed in their faces.
A visit to the Lincoln, Korean and Vietnam memorials was next on the agenda, expertly planned, as they are all easily accessible with wheel chairs. Even having to use the elevators at the Lincoln monument stirred excitement with the veterans, who enjoyed the jockeying of chairs and helpfulness of the general public.
Everywhere we went, there were hands outstretched to thank these men for their service.
On the tour bus again, it was just a short trip over to the Iwo Jima memorial. Again, the magnitude of this memorial was a surprise to me. At this point, Burt decided to stay on the bus and rest, and I took Jim to the memorial. It was here he started sharing his wartime story.
Jim had enlisted twice, and had eight campaign stripes on his American Legion hat. I asked him what they represented.
“Well, I guess I can tell you,” he said, but got lost in the middle of them. “It’s easier for me to start from the beginning,” he said.
James Johnson was a 2nd class petty officer and his job was as baker on the U.S.S. Stevenson, among other ships. He also had the job of gunner during live action, manning a 20 millimeter anti-aircraft gun.
In 1943 he enlisted and sailed from the Great Lakes to New York and then on to Gibraltar. From there they advanced to Casablanca and the French Morocco, he said. When shipped to Buna in New Guinea they went on to involvement in 13 missions in the Admiralty Islands.
By 1944, the fleet sailed to Alaska to fight the Japanese – a lot of the enemy committing suicide by jumping off cliffs or shooting themselves. In 1945 he was in Guam and the Philippine Islands, where he witnessed the war at Pellalu and Iwo Jima. From there the ship’s crew sailed to a nearby island for some much deserved rest and relaxation. Then Okinawa broke out and they had orders to go to an island 20 miles out of Japan and pick up survivors.
“We were there on Sept. 9, 1945, one of the first to go into Japan. Seventy days later they sailed back to through Calcutta and Capetown, Africa while bound for home. He took a train from New York to the Great Lakes where he was discharged, working in the same galley kitchen he had started in.
When he re-enlisted in 1947, Jim was assigned to a demolition ship, the Horrace A. Bass in Minneapolis and was sent to China, where they took the American Council out of Nan King. It was during the station here that Jimmy picked up quite a bit of the Chinese language that he can still say to this day. He says he even got assigned to MacArthur’s flagship, the Mount McKinley, in 1950. From there, they invaded Inchon and Korea. Jimmy said he’d had enough when he got out of the Navy in 1952.
After hearing the story unfold, I knew why the tears welled up in his eyes as we rolled his wheelchair around the massive Iwo Jima memorial. “I’ll never forget it, it was horrible, and I wasn’t even on land,” said Jim with jaw tucked in, shaking his head.
As the tour in Washington D.C. continued, the day was perfect, with the sun shining and temperature shooting up to a balmy 68 degrees. We had some time planned at Arlington Cemetery, and again, the tour guide gave us plenty of information. We guardians lined up the wheel-chaired veterans at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for a look at the changing of the guard, a somber setting. The steps of the monument atop of Arlington Cemetery was full of school children, families and tourist groups, patiently waiting in reverence to the fallen.
Our last stop was the Air Force Memorial, the newest of memorials we visited. Its three steel entrails reached to the sky at over 250 feet. It sits on a hill that overlooks all of Washington D.C. It was a fitting place to end our trip. Another box lunch was enjoyed out in the open air and we loaded the buses for our trip to the airport.
As I said before, patience is a virtue, and it can also be a blessing as there is time to talk to your veteran, and those around you. As we sat at the terminal in D.C., I heard many stories, both wartime and personal being shared with others. Don Neill of Neenah pointed to a set of buildings out our window, saying he worked in the office staff for the Combined and Joint Chiefs of Staff during the war. “This was before the Pentagon was ever built or thought of,” said Neill.
Surprisingly, the flight back to Wisconsin was not a quiet one, filled with snoring seniors. It was filled with talking, sharing, excitement, recollection, reflection and pride. Pats on the back, handshakes and big hugs were the pay that we guardians received as the veterans said their farewells.
A huge sense of patriotism and love for these veterans filled my heart all day, and moreso as I saw them leave the airport. My wish is for every veteran to see their memorial in Washington and know how much we appreciate their sacrifice.
If you would like more information on being a guardian, call1-888-6FLY-VET, write to 4650 W. Spencer Street, Appleton, WI 54914, or go to www.oldgloryhonorflight.org.