Proud Dad - A Different Dad
Posted by Ron Carlson on May 18, 2015, 9:56 am
Edited by board administrator May 18, 2015, 11:00 am
A week ago I posted a message of a personal nature with a similar title. On that occasion the Proud Dad was me. This time the Proud Dad in question is not me but MY Dad.
My Dad is a World War II veteran. He was a GI with the 43rd Infantry Division and fought in the South Pacific. He narrowly missed being in the invasion of Guadalcanal but was in battles in New Guinea and the Philippines. He came close to death on one occasion but otherwise made it out OK. He had a case of malaria that caused him to lose so much weight his own sister failed to recognize him when he mustered out. I figure the Merchant Marine gave him rides to and from and around the Pacific, and the Armed Guard must have helped keep him safe, so I'm in debt to both. Maybe being Webmaster of this site is a way to help pay off that debt.
So why am I posting this? Here's why. My Dad is 94 years old and by no means is he in good health. He uses a walker at home and a wheelchair when he leaves the house. He lives with my niece and her family and they take good, loving care of him. But even at his age, he sets challenging goals for himself. So a few months ago he decided he would like to visit Washington, DC, by means of an Honor Flight. I live just outside of DC so I and my wife and children would be able to be with him during his (very brief) visit.
I have mentioned Honor Flight on this message board before. It is an organization that arranges visits to Washington, DC, for World War II and now Korean War veterans, to visit the monuments in their honor, free of charge. Each veteran is accompanied and assisted by a personal escort, a Guardian in Honor Flight lingo, who has to pay for his or her flight. The Guardian is often a family member but generally not the spouse, unless the spouse is also a veteran. I want to tell you about my Dad's Honor Flight.
Dad was one of 110 veterans from western Michigan who flew to Washington, DC, last Saturday on an Honor Flight. My brother was Dad's Guardian. (Last Saturday was also my brother's birthday so it was a most unusual and emotional way to celebrate the day.) They had to get to the airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at oh-dark-hundred, as they say, and arrived in DC at 8:30, where my wife and I and maybe a hundred other people greeted the flight. It was a raucous welcome with cheers and applause, handshakes and hugs, as those fine old men deplaned, some in wheelchairs, some with walkers or canes, a few still navigating on their own two feet, accompanied by their Guardians. The group brought their own staff of medics to take care of the guys, plus photographers and reporters from the home-town newspaper and TV stations. The very last man off the plane was a retired general: he insisted that all of his boys get off before him.
They boarded six sleek, comfortable, air-conditioned charter buses. Boarding proved to be a slow process with so many wheelchairs and gimpy legs. I was invited to ride along on the bus with my Dad and brother. My wife drove our car from place to place to meet up with the group. The buses hauled out of the airport with a police escort that stopped traffic at EVERY intersection all day long. You would have thought the buses were filled with very important passengers. They were.
The schedule was demanding: first the Air Force Memorial, on a hill overlooking the Pentagon and the city in the background. Then the Iwo Jima Memorial, where a Marine Corps silent drill team did a performance for our group, after which the Marines walked over to mingle with our veterans. Then a break-neck tour of downtown DC, up one side of the Mall and down the other, going so fast that the tour guide on the bus could hardly keep up in describing over the PA system what we were passing. Box lunches were distributed on the buses as we toured.
Then on to Arlington National Cemetery, where our veterans had front-row seats to the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This was followed by not one but two wreath-laying ceremonies at the Tomb, sponsored by other groups. The bus I was on parked next to the grave site of Audie Murphy, the most-decorated soldier of World War II.
Then back to the buses and a fast ride to the highlight of the day, the World War II Memorial. As our group entered the memorial, we were met by former Senator Bob Dole, himself a wounded veteran of the war, who had so much to do with the planning and completion of the World War II Memorial while he was in Congress. He sat on a bench and kindly greeted each veteran as he passed, posing patiently for pictures with the men. Inside the memorial, my brother and I wheeled Dad to the Pacific side, with a pool around which are carved the names of battles and places that Dad knew so well from so many years ago. Dad got a little misty-eyed, not for the first or last time that day. My son, the merchant marine officer/Navy reserve officer, caught up with us at this point and wheeled his Grandpa around. Our veterans assembled for group photographs, a challenging task with more than 200 veterans, Guardians and staff, with thousands of other visitors to the memorial moving about. In the meantime my wife had made a side trip back to our house to fetch Dad's old Army uniform with the corporal's chevrons. It no longer fits Dad, and the wool jacket was much too warm for the day even if he could have worn it, but he proudly held it in his lap for the photographs.
Around the memorial are pillars inscribed with the name of each U.S. state and territory. Of course the veterans in this group had to find the pillar marked Michigan and pose by it, my Dad included. That caused quite the bottleneck at that location. Then my son wheeled his Grandpa down a long, shady walkway to the nearby Korean War Memorial, where our buses met us and my son and wife departed. Then we had a short ride to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial and a quick stroll through that very interesting place: four outdoor "rooms" representing FDR's four terms as President, with sculptures reminding one of the events of each term. The last room, the smallest, has only a quiet pool, representing FDR's death early in that term.
Another quick bus ride took our group to a group of canvas military mess tents set up on a field near the FDR Memorial for supper. It was a catered buffet sponsored by a local barbeque restaurant, very tasty I might say. We were greeted by dozens of active-duty military who had volunteered their time to be with our group and serve the meal, some of them (off-duty guards from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) in dress uniform, others in fatigues, the better to clean up after we left. A color guard presented the U.S. flag and the battle flags of the military services, and a young woman in Navy whites sang the national anthem. During supper Dad looked around inside his tent and said it was quite authentic, aside from the modern banquet tables at which we sat.
The day has been bright sunshine, with very warm temperatures (rather uncomfortable for these guys from Michigan even if I didn't think it was so bad) and high humidity. But now the sky clouded over heavily and it looked like rain. Sure enough, as we finished our meal we were advised to get back quickly to the buses, as the rain was beginning. We drove to the airport in what was now a driving rainstorm. How lucky we were that the rains had not started even an hour earlier.
At the airport the group got special Honor Flight treatment at security: none of this taking off your shoes and emptying your pockets and shuffling through the metal detectors. That would have taken forever, and who was about to claim these veterans were security risks? All they and their Guardians had to do was show the IDs that they had worn around their necks on a lanyard all day, and they were whisked through security. Me, I had to go through the whole standard routine.
A long, long line of tired veterans in their wheelchairs with their equally tired Guardians formed up in the terminal, leading to the gate where their charted plane waited. Loading the aircraft was as slow a proposition as loading the buses had been. A little girl, barely old enough to walk and who happened to be at the airport with her parents, teetered down the long line of wheelchairs, reaching out her tiny hand to each veteran in turn to say goodby. She was the last of dozens, scores, hundreds of people who had stopped to shake hands, pat backs and shoulders, and say thanks to these men all day long. My Dad was truly taken aback by the attention he and his buddies received. They were never so popular as on this day.
I said goodby to Dad and my brother at the gate and waited until their plane pushed back onto the taxiway. On the flight home there was to be "mail call," with the veterans receiving cards and letters from family and friends, written in advance and held for distribution. Awaiting them in Grand Rapids, I knew, was a heroes' welcome-home ceremony at a local high school with thousands in attendance. They deserved every bit of it. I'm sure they slept well that night.
Right now the Grand Rapids Press website has 84 photographs of their day; see http://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids/#/0. My Dad is in several of the photographs -- I won't try to point him out since in each case he's one of a crowd -- and I even ended up in two. In photograph #7, I'm the guy in the dark shirt and black hat in the foreground holding up a cell phone to take a picture of the group at the World War II Memorial. I guess my 15 minutes of fame have come and gone.
I've talked a lot about my Dad. Thanks for bearing with me. More to the point, I've talked about 110 veterans, honored last Saturday in a unique and memorable way that none of them will soon forget. And I've talked about their families and friends, some of whom saw them off at the airport or greeted their arrival, or pushed their wheelchairs, or passed out box lunches or bottles of cold water on a hot day, or simply cheered or shook their hands or gave out hugs. As the Honor Flight slogan goes, quoting Will Rogers: "We can't all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they walk by."
And even more to the point: you can have the same experience. Go to the Honor Flight website (https://www.honorflight.org/) and scroll through the "Regional Hubs" list. I see 138 local Honor Flight organizations, from as nearby as Maryland and Virginia (who travel by bus to DC) and as far as the West Coast, and even Alaska (those groups stay for two or three days rather than trying this one-day marathon). There is probably one reasonably close to you. Remember, it's FREE for you veterans. If you're up to it, and my 94-year-old Dad was, you can make this same visit too. You can share in this same honor. Do it!
And if you come, be sure to let me know in advance. Because I want to be there to shake your hand as your come off that plane.
Ron Carlson, Webmaster
Proud son of a proud and deserving World War II veteran