WASHINGTON, D.C. - For those living during World War II, but especially for those who wore the uniform, there had to be days to remember and days to try to forget. Sixteen million men and women served their country during World War II as members of the U.S. armed forces. Last Tuesday, a group of these veterans from southwest Iowa experienced some emotional memories from the war when they traveled to Washington, D.C. as members of the second Western Iowa Honor Flight.
Approximately 115 veterans with ties to southwest Iowa took part in the whirlwind tour, made possible through the efforts of Honor Flight volunteers and the generosity of private donors who kicked in approximately $90,000 to make last week’s trip possible.
The tribute to the WWII veterans began Monday night with a pre-flight dinner arranged by Council Bluffs businessman Jeff Ballenger and members of his Western Honor Flight fundraising organizing committee.
In addition to the veterans, a handful of guardians, medical staff and media members took part in the Honor Flight.
The pre-flight dinner and program included patriotic songs honoring each branch of the service. Several veterans mingled after the meal, agreeing there would be little sleep before their 4 a.m. breakfast. Some, like Pete Burnett, brought along his photo album that records his time with the Navy. Some wore their medals on their gold Honor Flight polo shirts.
The Honor Flight departed from Omaha’s Eppley Airfield bright and early Tuesday morning. The day’s itinerary in Washington included visits to the World War II, Vietnam, Iwo Jima and Korean War Memorials in addition to Arlington National Cemetery. The veterans were back in Omaha late Tuesday night.
“It was the most amazing thing,” veteran Jim Coffman of Red Oak said, reflecting on the day. “First, how they, I don’t want to say, ‘worshiped,’ but all they said about us and how they treated us. And I thought those monuments were great, especially the two, World War II – that monument was beautiful – and the Korean War Monument.”
The Korean War Monument depicts men working their way through a field as though expecting danger. Duane Jackson of Glenwood said the Korean War Monument’s figures looked very life-like.
“It looked like they were looking right back at you,” Jackson said. “It was something else. I didn’t experience any of that (carefully crossing a field). I was in the Navy, but I can kind of imagine what those guys felt like.”
Jackson thought the whole trip was good.
“Well, I just think nothing could beat the WWII Monument, but everything was good. It brings back memories, as far as that goes, of WWII,” he said. “The flight, it was just like starting out back when I first come in. I caught a bus in Glenwood, went to the Union Station in Omaha, caught a train to Farragut, Idaho. It’s like it started all over again.”
Jackson particularly liked Tuesday’s greeters at the airport in Washington who waved American flags as each veteran stepped off the chartered airplane and onto the tarmac.
“It was really neat that people were standing out there when we arrived, how they shook your hand. That was really nice,” Jackson said. “Somebody gave me a hug, I don’t know who it was.”
At the Vietnam Memorial Wall, filled with thousands of names of those who lost their lives fighting, as well as those whose wounds are still claiming their lives, was an emotional part of the tour for several veterans. The day the group visited, a new name was being etched into the wall.
Hugh Trask of Glenwood made the walk to the Vietnam Wall while some of the veterans chose to see the nearby Korean Memorial and then take a rest break for a few moments.
At the wall, Trask helped another veteran rub a name from the wall onto a sheet of paper. After the name was rubbed off, Trask and his fellow veteran stood soldier-to-soldier, quietly sharing the emotional impact of the memorial.
As they returned to board the bus, veterans held papers with names from the Vietnam Wall they had traced. Voices broke if they tried to explain why they’d traced a particular name. One veteran got a name for his son-in-law who’d held the fallen soldier as he bled to death. Another veteran represented a friend’s son who did not return from Vietnam.
When the group rode through acres and acres of tombstones in Arlington National Cemetery and witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, tears from the skies fell in the form of raindrops.
The flight brought back a tired but satisfied planeload of veterans when it smoothly touched down at Eppley Airfield shortly after 10 p.m.
“This was a fantastic experience,” said Trask. “It was a well-organized visit to our nation’s capitol. We were treated with honor and respect. The memorials visited were fantastic. The flight, perfect. All in all, I can’t think of anything not taken care of or thought of for us. I want to salute all who participated in this effort for our WWII Vets.”