As we prepare to honor our veterans this coming Friday, I would like to take this time to tell you about a recent trip it was my honor to participate in. The following is the complete story as I felt it, watched it and of those who I travelled with.
It’s very seldom that one gets the opportunity to go back in time to re-visit a certain event that was so important to the World and the United States. However, on Friday, October. 14, at 6:35 a.m., I boarded a Southwest Airlines jet to do just that. I was heading for Washington D.C., as one of 29 men and women who were members of Honor Flight 2016, comprised of veterans of World War II and the Forgotten War–Korea.
Ages on this flight to history ranged from the youngest, Dennis Kellogg, 82, a Marine from 1953-56 (Korea), who is retired and lives in Alamo, to the oldest 93-year-old Harry “Hap” Bledsoe, a member of the Merchant Marines during WW II, who participated in numerous island invasions against Japan in the Pacific. This writer, 83, Air Force (1950-53), Japan/Korea, personal body guard (for six months) to General Douglas MacArthur, and the Air Police Investigation Service (APIS).
Twenty-three of the veterans needed the assistance of wheelchairs to get to and from the airplane, busses, and when we would arrive at the various memorials, and especially at the majestic World War II memorial dedicated to “The Greatest Generation.” This was the first stop on our memory tour of that time long ago. Fortunately, I was not in need of the extra transportation. Each member of our flight was assigned a “Guardian” whose only job was to take care of our every need. The guys and ladies in the wheelchairs were pushed everywhere by a “Guardian.” Some of us were paired off with a single “Guardian.” We were also paired off two to a room at the Westin Hotel in Linthicum Heights, Maryland (a 10-minute bus ride from the Baltimore/Washington International Airport). I met my roommate, Las Vegas resident and Korean War veteran (1950-54) Robert “Bob” Chase, 84, a Marine communication specialist (MOS2663), and currently a volunteer with the Metro Police Department. Our “Guardian” was Ms. Jung Lee from Texas, who flies in from Texas. She had been on seven previous Honor Flights.
The men and women who pushed the wheelchairs, who got us a bottle of water when we needed it, made sure we didn’t wonder off somewhere and get lost, delivered our lunches to us, and if needed a little back-rub, or if one of us walkers got tired and needed a little push in a chair, the chair was there! Each one of the 22 “Guardians,” plus two medics and two tour leaders, volunteered for this duty. They pay all their own expenses, including air fares (explanation: Southwest Airlines donates so many tickets during the year to the 136 Honor Flight programs throughout the United States, and those are used for the veterans). The cost to a veteran is zero, but the actual cost averages about $1.200.00, which is picked up by the local Honor Flight organization. A great number of the volunteers have made more than one trip, at a cost of approximately $900.00 for each trip. The two paramedics on this trip: Shannon Powell (a Las Vegas firefighter), who was on his fourth flight, and Melanie Bangle (from Community Ambulance) on her first flight, are the only volunteers who do not pay. There has been a total of eight flights, beginning in 2013. Total cost of an average flight is approximately $39,000. Much of the money is raised at various community events over the year and through generous donations.
Our “Guardian,” Jung Lee, explained it this way: “It’s such a great honor to watch you guys and ladies as you experience the various events and to see your reactions. It’s an emotional trip for each of us guardians…and especially to be with you and Bob since I was born in Korea, and my father fought in the war as a R.O.K. soldier…if it hadn’t been for guys like you, my dad wouldn’t have met my mother, and I wouldn’t ever have been born.” Jung Lee grew up in the United States when the family immigrated in 1970, attended college, joined the U.S. Army as a Lieutenant and separated as a Captain, married and now resides in Huntsville, Texas. She has two adult children.
Friday, we gathered at McCarran International Airport at 4:30 a.m. for the 6:35 a.m. departure. The USO was there (just like they were when I went to Korea) to greet us as we slowly arrived in a special area of the airport. We were served coffee and donuts just like it was a long time ago. It was time to board our jet. First aboard were those in wheelchairs, then the rest of us veterans boarded. Once the last of our flight was safely aboard and seated in the front rows, the paying passengers boarded. As the passengers filed down the aisle of the plane they applauded and reached out to shake a hand.
This was the first real awareness that this journey I was about to start on was not going to be just a trip for a bunch of old veterans. Of course, the lady who heads up the program (everyone is a volunteer), Belinda Morse and the “Guardians,” including board member Dawn Walker, kept the many surprises to come, pretty much to themselves. They wanted what would happen during the next 72 hours to be as much of a surprise as possible. And, were there surprises? you bet!
Our first surprise started as we landed at the airport outside Washington. As we taxied to the Southwest Airline hub, two fire trucks met the plane and sprayed it with a shower of water: a tribute reserved for very important people or events. It was just the first of many to come during this journey back in time. We waited for the regular passengers to leave the plane (again applauds and shaking of hands), then the wheelchairs came aboard for those unable to walk to the gangway. We were a flight of 29 veterans and our guardians, as we slowly walked off the gangway with our buddies in the chairs leading the way. Well, I don’t know how to honestly tell you or to describe just how this reporter, and every one of the vets and the 26 volunteers felt. The moment we hit the terminal, there were two lines comprised of at a couple thousand people on both sides of the path (a rope line) shouting, and reaching out to each of us. There was a band playing some WWII music. I could barely hear the music over the shouting of those thousands of people who were there to greet us.
Tears were rolling down my cheek as well as Bob’s. As we looked around to check on the progress of the wheelchair vets, you could see the emotion in their faces. There was Carroll Knutson, 92, Army Air Corps, WW II (1942-1946) a B-17 pilot shot down over Germany and a prisoner of war at Stalag No. 3 in his wheelchair. A huge smile on his face as tears welled up in his eyes. Next to him was Roger Bain, 90, Army WW II, (1943-46) Sergeant combat infantry in Europe who earned the Purple Heart with two Oak Leaf Clusters. Being pushed by his son, Curtis, was Alvin “A’” Snapper, 86, who snuck in at age 14 to fight in WW II (1945-47), and jumped into Europe, being seriously wounded. They were remembering the time they came home from the Great War. There wasn’t a dry eye among us, nor for many of those standing and welcoming us home. It was like we were all just returning from our war! When we got to a holding location, not one vet had dry eyes. This was just the first of many wonderful surprises.
The first evening at the hotel, we met in the Ballroom for a magnificent dinner. Mike Parker, a guardian and uncle of Belinda, who travelled from North Carolina, led the opening prayer both nights. The PW/Missing man prayers were given by veterans Patrick “Pat” O’Keefe (89), Navy Radar man 3rd class, 1944-46, and Blanche Bozarth (91), Army nurse 1st class 1942-45. In keeping with the tradition, a table with a single setting and a red rose was set up at the front of the room. This was becoming quite an emotional event for us all.
(Names Left to Right)
Early Saturday, we had a wonderful breakfast buffet before boarding our bus, driven by Keith, for the nearly 1 ½ hour drive into Washington D.C. There was a great surprise for us as we pulled out of the hotel driveway (I’m not going to spoil it for those who get to go on future flights), so I will just say it was a fun ride to the heart of D.C. Stop number one was the new (dedicated in 2004) World War II Memorial, which was placed between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial to reflect the importance of that war with the other two important moments in time.
An Honor Guard and bugler greeted us. A group photo was taken–after that we spread out and found our Nevada memorial. As we walked around the massive memorial, we met up with Air Force Four Star General Stephen “Seve” Wilson, Vice-Chief of Staff, accompanied by the Marine Commandant, a pair of Admirals, and an Army General. This is where Bob and I met a most interesting young lady, Kimberly M. Mitchell who was born in Vietnam in 1971. She eventually immigrated to America and joined the Navy as an officer from 1996-2012. You can read her story by going here: http://vvaveteran.org/32-2/32-2_danang.html , or look her up on Google. It was time to load up the bus and move to our next memorial, The Iwo Jima Memorial. This giant sculpture, created to honor the moment the Marines raised the flag over the island, is, without question, one of the most singularly impressive Memorials visited during out stay. Glen Davis, Jr., of Kingman, AZ., 87, a Marine, WW II, Lewis Curtis, 90, 2nd Marine Division (1943-50), and Bob Chase, saluted their Memorial.
Our next stop was outside the extraordinary Arlington National Cemetery, where we visited the Women’s Memorial. I watched as Jane Coleman, 87, a Navy flight nurse (1949-53) who flew with the injured from Korea to a hospital in Hawaii, looked at photos of those who served before and after her. With Coleman was Eva Tallon, 86, an Amy operating room technician (1951-54) at Camp Cook in Japan, and co-editor for the Battalion News. Just another few moments in time.
It was time to enter the most cherished section of Washington, the Arlington National Cemetery, where quiet and no smoking is the last word. Keith steered the bus through the cemetery, pointing out important burial sites as we drove towards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We were the honored guest this day at the Changing of the Honor Guard ceremony. At precisely 1:15 p.m., Lt. Knutson, nurses Coleman and Bozarth, and Harry Bledsoe placed a wreath at the foot of the memorial.
I had previously asked Keith if he knew where boxing legend Joe Louis’ burial site was. He said he did, and, if we had time he would drive by it and let me know. As we left Keith was pointing out various sites, the bus suddenly stopped, and Shannon (our paramedic) asked for me to come to the front of the bus. The door opened and Keith said there is Mr. Louis, pointing to a beautiful grave marker. I got off the bus and spent a few minutes with my old boss and the godfather of one of my daughters. That was a very special moment in time for me.
Next came the Lincoln Monument, the Viet Nam and Korean Memorials, all rolled into one stop, where we could visit all three sites. At the Korean War Memorial, myself, Bob Close, Joseph “Joe” Childers, 90, U.S. Navy WW II (1944-45) and Korea (1950-53), along with Nurses Blanche Bozarth and Jane Coleman, laid a wreath. That was one very special moment in time I will never forget! Our last stop was at the Navy Memorial. We headed back to our hotel, where we would all gather at 7:00 p.m. for our last dinner together. To be honest, about 16 of us met at the hotel bar after dinner to celebrate this special time we had together.
I was totally amazed at the whole experience, Sergeant Snapper said. “And to think I was with my son, who took it upon himself to be my Guardian. That was such a wonderful gift…we had never traveled together before.”
Sunday, we departed Washington. Our “Moments in Time” were coming to an end. We were returning to Las Vegas, where two-final surprises awaited us. During the flight Belinda, and her fantastic helper bees (Guardians) pulled off another big surprise. And I do mean a huge surprise that reached deep into the heart of each person on that flight. That’s all I’m going to say about that, as it would ruin it for future flights.
Greeting us as we departed the plane at 3:30 p.m. was a huge crowd of scouts along with members of the U.S. Army Nevada National Guard, the USO, Metro and TSA agents. Once again the emotions began to take hold. We got through that welcome and headed for the tram which would take us to the baggage area, where we were told our relatives and friends would be waiting for us. Every wheelchair was manned by members of the National Guard.
Let me tell you, there were more than 1,000 people on the walkway above the baggage area. They were screaming and applauding just as they had in Washington. That emotional thing returned. I found my three daughters, Robin, Denise and Lisa, along with my best friend Cathy mixed into the crowd, waving a big sign with three photos of my days in the Air Force. This was the ultra-climax to one of the most emotional trips I have ever experienced. I hope through my words you can get a sense of what we felt during those 72 hours.
“This was the most wonderful experience I’ve ever had,” Harlan Bonham, 91, Army (1944-46), a combat rifleman, summed it up. “I feel that this event has made me a greater man, even at my age.”
It had become a ritual that, during this flight, everywhere we went, people would walk up and say, “thank you for your service,” and then applaud us as we walked around a site, or when we were sitting down to rest. My 72 hours of returning to a “Memory in Time” was closing. Honor Flight 2016 had returned with all members safely home.
If you are a veteran of the Great War, Korea or any of the new wars, and want to be placed on the list to participate in future Honor Flights, contact The Honor Flight of Southern Nevada, 2190 E. Pebble Road, suite 150, Las Vegas, NV 89123, or call 702-749-5912. Should you want to volunteer, call them.