Veterans call Honor Flight an awesome experience
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Unbelievable. Tremendous. Pretty neat. Impressive. Wonderful.
Those words were spoken countless times Friday and Saturday by the World War II veterans experiencing the inaugural Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight.
Less than five months after four counties -- Rock, Nobles, Murray and Pipestone -- began to organize a heroes flight for its World War II veterans to see their memorial, a dream had become a reality.
Friday's 6 a.m. arrival at the Sioux Falls, S.D., airport was met with flag-waving members of the Patriot Guard, Legion Riders and Rolling Thunder motorcycle groups, wishing the veterans well on their trip. It marked the first of several honor lines that would form over the course of the two-day journey.
Perhaps the most unique occurred after landing in Washington, D.C. As the plane taxied toward its gate, firefighters arched streams of water over the plane from both sides -- customary treatment for World War II veterans arriving on Honor Flight.
Just inside the terminal, more than 50 people had formed a welcoming committee, including members of the U.S. Air Force, the Honor Flight Ground Crew and children. The sight was rather overwhelming for some of the veterans.
"It just about made tears come out of my eyes," said Dan Scheepstra of Worthington. He had never in his life experienced such a welcome.
When Scheepstra came home from the war, he arrived in town at night, picked up his car from the church parking lot and drove home.
"Nobody was waiting for me," he said.
Said Round Lake's Rusty Anderson of the welcome, "It couldn't be neater. It's the best day of my life."
Better things were yet to come however.
The veterans had a full day of activities ahead of them, including stops at the Air Force Memorial, Iwo Jima Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery, where they viewed the changing of the guard.
John DeYonge of Hadley experienced Arlington National Cemetery for the first time on Friday.
"I thought it was cool," said De- Yonge, who served in the Navy from 1945-1946, and spent time in the South Pacific aboard the USS Vincennes CL-64.
Following the changing of the guard, the veterans traveled through historic Arlington, Va., enroute to the motel and an evening Heroes Banquet.
Terrie Gulden, president of the Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight executive committee, praised the veterans during the banquet.
"I want to thank you all for the contribution that you've made to the freedom that allows us to be here today," said Gulden, of Luverne. "We appreciate you, we love you, that's why we're here."
The first stop on Saturday's agenda was the World War II Memorial, which opened in April 2004 to honor the 16 million people who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. The memorial's completion ultimately led to the creation of Honor Flight, a program focused on getting World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the monument dedicated in their honor.
It was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip for many of the veterans on the journey. Ranging in age from 82 to 93, the 100-plus men and two women on the inaugural flight will likely not have an opportunity to get to Washington, D.C., again.
During their more than two hour visit at the World War II memorial, many of the veterans were approached by people from all across the country wanting a chance to shake a hand and thank a veteran for his or her service.
"Kids shook my hand all the way from grade school to college kids," beamed R.J. Mulder of Worthington. "I can't believe the recognition I got -- there's just tears in my eyes."
And as for the memorial, Mulder said, "They done a good job."
The World War II Memorial is located on the National Mall, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Nearby are the Korean and Vietnam memorials, which the veterans visited following a driving tour of Washington, D.C.
The last stops on the trip included a visit to the Navy Memorial and the Smithsonian Institute's Air and Space Museum. The museum houses the Enola Gay, the B-29 superfortress bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
It was certainly a point of interest for all of the veterans to see.
Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight's inaugural journey came to a close with arrival into Sioux Falls shortly before 1 a.m. Sunday, following a two-hour flight delay. The Patriot Guard riders and dozens of family members were on hand to welcome the men and women home with handshakes and hugs.
Complete coverage of the Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight will be published in a special commemorative edition to be included with the Daily Globe on Saturday.