Memorials and mail call: Day two itinerary features Navy, Air Force, Marine memorialsARLINGTON, Va. — An unexpected visit to the U.S. Navy Memorial was well appreciated by the nearly 40 former Navy men aboard the second Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight.
ARLINGTON, Va. — An unexpected visit to the U.S. Navy Memorial was well appreciated by the nearly 40 former Navy men aboard the second Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight.
Trip organizers didn’t plan on visiting the memorial at all, due to a massive AFL-CIO rally planned in Washington on Saturday. Last-minute change of plans meant vets could view the outdoor part of the memorial — just as long as the tour buses left the area before protesters arrived.
As Slayton resident Robert Rosengren studied the bronze relief scenes of Navy life, he recalled his two years repairing tugboats as a Seaman First Class. Tugboats were usually sent to guide Destroyer Escort vessels safely into the harbor.
“We had this one lieutenant who thought he didn’t need a tugboat,” Rosengren said with a hearty laugh. “He crashed right into the dock, scraped up about half of the ship. He wasn’t a lieutenant anymore.”
From there, the group travelled to the Air Force Memorial, which was dedicated in 2006.
“Anything I can do for a fellow vet is the right thing to do,” said guardian Christy Appel, a former member of the Air Force, as she stood between the three stainless steel spires that comprise the memorial’s focal point. “It’s an honor to help them.”
The veterans fell quiet as they stopped for lunch at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, eyeing the hulking monument where their brethren in arms are immortalized as 32-foot soldiers.
During a moment of levity, one of the Honor Flight staff members was lying on his back in front of a group of veterans, trying to get the men and the huge statue in his camera’s viewfinder. A guardian, noting the staff member’s prone position, tipped a bottle of water up and dribbled some of the liquid on the staff member’s forehead. The veterans had watched the guardian’s mischievous approach and roared with laughter when the staff member was caught unaware.
From there, it was off to watch the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery and peruse the large fighter planes at the National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Va.
“It’s nice,” said Pipestone resident Jerry Moose of the packed itinerary. “But it’s a helluva lot of walking. The World War II Memorial, that’s the part I was most interested in. You could be here for weeks and not know it all.”
The men said they were still soaking in the star treatment they received throughout the trip, with welcome lines receiving them at each airport and strangers offering words of thanks for their long-ago service.
“I have something I’d like to say,” announced Howie Schmidtke, a former Army Private First Class from St. James, when his bus stopped at Washington Dulles International Airport. “I would like to thank all the beautiful, energetic young people who made this trip possible.”
As the veterans passed a waiting line of Boy Scouts from a local church, the youngsters saluted them.
“They saluted me and I saluted them and I told them I gave them the country back, now take care of it,” said Doss Nelson, a former Navy man from Pipestone.
The Honor Flight staff had a few more surprises in store.
As the men pooled in the terminal to await their flight home, the booming voices of guardians filled the small waiting room.
“Mail call!” they thundered. “Mail Call!”
Each veteran had his name called out and was presented with a small packet of letters of thanks from schoolchildren in southwest Minnesota. And back in Sioux Falls, S.D., more words of thanks awaited them, along with family members.
“I knew my daddy was going to be on the freedom flight,” said Sandy Johnson, a teacher from South Carolina. “I told my principal, ‘I really need a day off to go see my daddy come back from the freedom flight.’ And before I could get the words out of my mouth she was giving me permission. And here he is, my lovely dad, who’s my spiritual hero and, of course, my veteran hero. We’re very honored and blessed to be here. This is one of the top 10 on my list of fun evenings, and for as old as I am, that’s saying a lot.”
Like many children of World War II-era veterans, she didn’t hear many war stories growing up.
“He didn’t really say a lot, but I honored his quietness about it or honored what he did say,” Johnson added. “But it made him my hero because I know his veteran experience has formed a lot of his faith and what kind of person he is.”
“It’s a wonderful thing,” said Jerry Johnson, her father. “I wasn’t that keen on going, but I’m glad I did. There are some real beautiful memories.”