A decade later: Remembering Honor Flight
REGIONAL — Thursday marks the 10th anniversary of the first of four Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight excursions with more than 400 of the region’s World War II veterans visiting their memorial in Washington, D.C.
For those involved, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity crammed into roughly 36 hours that resulted in unforgettable memories.
In the decade since that inaugural flight, hundreds of the World War II veterans who embarked on the flights from southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa have passed on. Those who remain are well into their 90s.
Jo Strube, an Army nurse during World War II, is 99 — she's looking to celebrate her 100th birthday in November — and she still lives in her own home.
Strube was one of two female veterans on the inaugural flight, April 30-May 1, 2010. The other was Lois Widmark of Ivanhoe, who served in the Navy. The two forged a special friendship on Honor Flight, and to this day still correspond.
“It was a wonderful trip, really,” Strube shared Tuesday morning. “I really appreciated that they had done that for us. There’s so many memories.
“Now, I don’t think there’s too many of us left,” she reflected.
In all, there were 437 World War II veterans who participated in Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight. Through sponsorships, guardian fees, donations and fundraisers, nearly $598,000 was raised to make the cost of the trip free to all veterans.
Loren Goettsch of Worthington has many fond memories from the trip, from visiting the memorials and Arlington National Cemetery, to getting mail call at the airport when the evening flight home was delayed by several hours.
“There were letters from these kids in grade school from all around the area. That really got to me,” shared Goettsch, who kept every single one of those handmade cards and letters. “That was very, very, very special.”
On two previous visits to Washington, Goettsch said construction of a World War II Memorial hadn’t yet begun. He didn’t think he’d get back there to see the exhibit built for him and the more than 16 million Americans who served, whether at home or abroad.
“You can look at pictures, but that isn’t like being there,” Goettsch said, noting the emotional tug he felt at Arlington National Cemetery and the Korean Memorial.
“I’m glad you guys think so much of the veterans,” he shared. “We served and there was nothing special about us because we were like one in a million.”
Alvin Obermoller was one of several Brewster-area World War II veterans on the inaugural Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight. He said one of his greatest memories of the trip was meeting a Japanese freelance reporter under a shade tree near the Vietnam Memorial. While he rested on a bench, he and the reporter began conversing, and Obermoller learned that she was looking to get closure for the families of Japanese suicide pilots.
Obermoller told the reporter of the near miss between one of those pilots and the ship he was aboard as it left Okinawa.
“One of the suicide plans just missed us,” he said, telling of how the pilot had steered his plane to go down right between the ship’s stacks, but instead ended up nosediving into the sea on the ship’s port side.
The reporter said she had the name of the pilot who missed his ship.
While that may have been the highlight of his trip, Obermoller said the entire experience was memorable and “went almost perfect,” with the exception of the delayed homecoming.
“I don’t know how it could have gotten any better,” he added.
Herman Hinders, who will be 99 in July, recalled the Honor Flight as a wonderful trip.
“I enjoyed that so much — especially the way the people took care of me,” he said.
Each Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight — there were two in 2010 and two in 2011 — was accompanied by 50 guardians (in many cases a son, daughter or grandchild of a veteran) on the trip, as well as medical staff and executive committee members.
Jane Lanphere was at the heart of the coordination, collecting veteran and guardian applications for each trip and being an integral point person during each of the four flights.
“To me, the biggest blessing was meeting these magnificent men and women,” she said. “Every single one of them had a story to tell.
“You just met this remarkable group of people. They did extraordinary things and came back and carried on with their life,” she added.
Lanphere said the attitude of service was evident by the veterans who took part in Honor Flight — not only in serving in the war, but returning home and giving back whether through their family, their career or business, and to their community.
“They just continued to give their whole life,” she said.
Larry Lanphere, one of the executive committee members, said of the flights, “When they left with us, they were old men. When we got to Washington, after a couple of hours the people in wheelchairs or with canes were walking and their whole life changed.
“Coming back home, I remember they wouldn’t shut up,” he said with a laugh. “We were exhausted keeping them all organized.”
With the flight delay on the return home from that inaugural flight, Larry Lanphere said he remembers the veterans still being wide awake when they landed at the Sioux Falls, South Dakota airport at 4:30 in the morning.
“Everything we did was a joy — everyone was so great,” added Jane Lanphere.
The Lanpheres have attended many of the funerals for the World War II veterans since the end of Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight. It’s clear the veterans and their families thought highly of the trip, as some were wearing either their Honor Flight cap or jacket in the casket, or it was part of their memorial display.
Globe Publisher Joni Harms was a Nobles County representative on the executive committee for all four Honor Flights.
“Hands down, being a part of these Honor Flights was the most fulfilling, most rewarding thing I've ever done through my 42 years at The Globe — and certainly one that I am most proud of,” she said.
“It's so very special when families of these veterans continue to reach out and share how much these trips meant to their loved ones,” she added. “I know today that we were a part of something much bigger than ever imaginable. For some, this was the first or only time they opened up with their inner feelings.”
Harms and Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight President Terrie Gulden both recognized the efforts of the guardians on each trip for their dedication and help to make it an enjoyable experience for the veterans.
Gulden, a Vietnam veteran, said so many memories were generated from those four trips, but one in particular for him was seeing veterans open up and talk about their experiences at the World War II Memorial.
“This one guy … didn’t want to talk (at the evening banquet),” Gulden recalled. “He said, ‘I could tell you stories you’d never believe anyway.’”
The next day, however, while at the memorial, he was talking with his comrades.
“That was exactly what we wanted to happen,” Gulden said. “They found others who could understand their stories.”
Taking part in the journeys with the veterans was something Gulden said he will treasure all his life.
“I will never forget it,” he added.
One outcome of the Honor Flight program is a special display being created at the Herreid Military Museum in Luverne to tell the story of the U.S. Marine Corps response at Iwo Jima. Round Lake native Clifford “Hooley” Huehn will be featured in the display, which is hoped to open in advance of Veterans Day.