First things first: Initial stopWASHINGTON — It was dessert first for veterans on the second Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota.
WASHINGTON — It was dessert first for veterans on the second Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota.
Following a warm Patriot Guard reception at the Sioux Falls, S.D., airport, the men headed straight for Washington, D.C., and their initial stop — the World War II Memorial on the famed National Mall.
“It’s fun to watch them,” said Patriot Guard member Gary Henle of Sioux Falls as he greeted arriving veterans in Sioux Falls. “They’re kind of groggy in the morning and when they get back they’re dog-tired ‘cause they run them all over the place, but they have a bounce in their step when they get off that airplane. It’s something to see.”
“I just like visiting with people,” said Ken Borgstahl of Slayton. He and his wife Mary have been members of the guard for about a year. “I see all these fellas and wonder where they came from and what they did in the service.”
Most veterans were a little drowsy for their 5:45 a.m. arrival in Sioux Falls, though some couldn’t sleep from the excitement.
“I didn’t sleep worth a darn all night,” said Millard Hayek, a Navy EM Second Class from Canby. “The bed was good, it was me. I didn’t think I was nervous but I woke up at 3:15 and waited for them to call me at 3:45.”
Because this Honor Flight drew participants from a wider geographic area, many men stayed overnight in Luverne before boarding airport-bound buses at the Blue Mound Banquet Center.
“My wife and I have been to Washington, D.C., and seen the major attractions except the World War II Memorial, so that’s No. 1 on my list,” said LeRoy Brockberg of Slayton, who served as an Army Air Corps Master Sergeant. “It’ll be fantastic. Everybody just raves about that.”
Another rave-inducing moment was the men’s arrival in the nation’s capital. The plane erupted into applause and cheers after a slightly bumpy landing, and each veteran was greeted by a crowd of locals sporting “Honor Flight Ground Crew” T-shirts as patriotic tunes blasted through the terminal.
“My grandfather was a World War II veteran and he passed away before the memorial was built, so I feel this is a nice way to honor the veterans and thank them for what they have done for us,” said Tara Brandt, a Navy wife from northern Virginia, as she held son Jackson, who was clad in a sailor’s hat.
“We try to make them feel welcome because we’re honored that they’re coming,” said Ashburn, Va., resident Anne Brown. “I tell them thank you and I hope they have a great day and then I respond to whatever they say back to me, but I love them. I hate to stand here and cry, but I do. And I try to kiss everyone. … I’ve had volunteer jobs, but this is not a job. I dare everyone to come out here and not cry. They deserve it, and they should have gotten it a long time ago.”
“What can I say? Wonderful,” responded Sylvan Behrens, a former Army Artillery Sergeant from Truman. “I didn’t expect a welcome like that; I didn’t do that much.”
“I don’t think many of them would get the opportunity to go without something like this,” commented Mary Ness of Roseville, a guardian who was accompanying her father, Jim Petersen, on the trip. “I don’t think they consider themselves heroes and they were being told ‘thank you for your service’ and ‘you’re a hero.’ I don’t think they expected that at all.”
Emotions ran deep when the men arrived at the World War II Memorial.
“I’ve been out here before this was built, in 1987. But this is all new. … It’s terrific,” said Lee Mau, who served as a first lieutenant in the Army.
In spite of its novelty, the memorial, dedicated in 2004, stirred painful memories for more than one veteran.
“Our unit received the Presidential Unit Citation when we stopped a German tank attack,” Mau recalled. “Twenty-two tanks, about 200 men, against G Company and part of that company, I suppose about 150 foot soldiers who dug in their trenches and the tanks came. We had mostly rifles and we concentrated on their infantry in back, and the infantry wouldn’t go forward and finally the tanks turned around. But one of the men was run over by a tank. He refused to move. There were a few others killed, but one man just refused to move even when the tanks came at him — he got the Silver Star for that.
“Even after all these years it’s really hard to talk about it. There’s so many stories, but I just can’t really finish them.”
The oval memorial features 56 pillars inscribed with names of states, territories and the District of Columbia. According to literature from the National Park Service, the pillars are united in a common cause.
It was a place of union — or rather reunion — for two post-war buddies separated by more than a half-century.
Don Hecker of Heron Lake and Leo Baumgard of Brewster chatted by the fountains after reconnecting for the first time in a half-century.
“We was going to ag school together after the war; I think we lost track of each other until today,” said Baumgard, a former Navy Seabee.
“This is marvelous what they’ve done here, they’ve made memorials for the servicemen,” said Hecker. “People are so nice; they treat you just like kings.”
After a group photo and a long visit, the men were transported to their next stops — the Lincoln, Vietnam Veterans and Korean War memorials.
“You can’t hardly find anybody that was in the Second World War that will talk about it. The kids get just mad as hell at me because I was supposed to sit down and I’m supposed to tape this stuff before I die,” former Army PFC Howie Schmidtke told another veteran as they rested on a shaded bench near the Vietnam memorial. “You know what I think about? The poker games we had. And the wine we drank in Italy and stuff like that.”
“You know,” he continued, “they’re making a much bigger deal out of us now than when I came home.”
“By God, it really makes you feel good,” responded former Navy Admiral Frank Finke.