Ernest Corson, 97, of Hesper, Iowa, joined other veterans on the Eastern Iowa Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, April 23. He is shown above at the Air Force Memorial where he points to where he served during World War II.  Corson was the oldest veteran on the Honor Flight that day.
Ernest Corson, 97, of Hesper, Iowa, joined other veterans on the Eastern Iowa Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, April 23. He is shown above at the Air Force Memorial where he points to where he served during World War II. Corson was the oldest veteran on the Honor Flight that day.
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At 97 and retired from the Air Force, Ernest Corson of Hesper had one more mission he had to accomplish in Washington, D.C. It was top secret until the day his son, Doug, came to pick him up at his current home at Aase Haugen Nursing Home in Decorah to take him to Cedar Rapids, where they would both fly out the next day as part of the Eastern Iowa Honor Flight on April 23.

"I came in and told Dad he was being called up to active duty one more time," explained Doug. "We didn't tell him ahead of time so he couldn't come up with another excuse not to go."

Doug explained that he and his siblings have been trying to convince Ernie to go on an Honor Flight for many years, but Ernie always said he couldn't leave his wife, Charlotte, alone for that long. Since Charlotte had passed away last December, Doug said there was no longer a good reason to keep Ernie from finally participating in this rite of passage.

"We thought it would be great for him to see the World War II Memorial," Doug added. "He donated to it and helped build it so we wanted him to be able to see it."

The two stayed overnight in Cedar Rapids due to the early departure time from the Eastern Iowa Airport. They were asked to arrive at the airport before 5:45 for their 7 a.m. flight.

Once in the air, the World War II and Korean veterans received letters from Iowa students. As Ernie shared his stack of letters, it was fun to see the comments written by these young people, thanking Corson for his service to his country and for the sacrifices he and his fellow soldiers have made. Some simply wrote, "You rock!" and "You're awesome!" but all of the letters shared a common theme - respect for a man who had served his country during a turbulent time.

Upon arrival in Washington, Ernie was once again surprised as his son, Forrest, and his wife, had flown in from Des Moines and his granddaughter, her husband and daughter, had also come up from Philadelphia to spend some time with him on this special day.

The Honor Flight took the veterans to tour not only the World War II Memorial, but also the Lincoln, Korean, Vietnam and Iwo Jima Memorial. He also made sure to see the Air Force Memorial. His favorite stop, according to Doug, was the FDR Memorial, where there were lots of statues creating scenes from the Depression, including a bread line and the president with his dog. Walls are lined with quotes from that era and a beautiful waterfall stands nearby.

In the late afternoon, the veterans and their guardians went to Arlington National Cemetery where they were able to witness the changing of the guard and visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The group arrived at the Reagan National Airport at 8:15 and departed for Cedar Rapids at 9:30, enjoying their dinner on the plane ride home.

By the time Doug and Ernie had driven home, they had been up for almost 24 hours straight. It had been a long day, but one that was also full of memories for all who were involved.

Impressions of the flight

"Everything went like clockwork," Doug said. "It was very well organized."

The Honor Flight program is an important one, Doug believes, and is grateful for the support of those who make it possible for veterans like his father to experience a trip like this.

While Doug was exhausted by the end of the day, he said his father held up better than he did.

"That's because I'm a scotch veteran," Ernie quickly added.

Spending the day with his father and reminiscing about their trip has allowed Doug to learn more about his father's World War II experiences.

"I've learned a lot more details," Doug said. "There have been a lot of hidden stories that have come out and have gotten us kids interested."

A distinguished career

Ernie enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941. He was judged too old to fly planes at the age of 26 so he entered radio school and graduated two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

As a member of the Army Airways Communication Service (AACS) he served during WWII at locations throughout Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

As a volunteer for the invasion of Attu he was diverted to the nearby island of Shemya (2 miles by 4 miles) and participated in the building of a top secret Air Force base during extreme arctic conditions.

Ernie said that life on Shemya was very primitive with most living in only tents to protect them from windy and volatile weather. Because he was in charge of the radio equipment, Ernie was given the first Quonset hut on the island.

Doug explained that this base, located at the end of the Aleutian Island chain, was used to bomb the northern islands of Japan and to protect the western United States from another Japanese attack. The base was actually kept secret throughout the war.

"It's still an important island today," Doug added. Renamed the Eareckson Air Station in 1993, it still operates as a radar station and aircraft refueling stop.

Ernie was selected to be a part of the invasion of Japan, but thankfully never had to report for that mission as Japan surrendered.

After a long leave to spend time and help out his family in northern Winneshiek County, Ernie re-enlisted.

Doug said Ernie had passed up going to officer candidate school to be with Charlotte when she was ill with polio in 1949.

When it was time for him to be shipped to England, Ernie recalled making a special trip to Washington, where he had to go to the Pentagon to get special permission to bring his wife and family to England with him as he did not want to leave Charlotte alone to care for their son, Denny, and daughter, Lynda.

While in England, Doug was born, and the family lived there for several more years. Once the family returned to the States, Dalton and Forrest joined the family. Charlene, the youngest of the children, was born in England the second time the family was stationed there.

During the time the family lived in England, Doug said they made many friends. Ernie said the English were always very grateful for the United States coming to their aid during the war.

"I never regretted it," Ernie said about his time in the service. "I saw a lot of things people don't even know about. People in the United States have no idea what other countries went through and what they had to live without."

He also recalled how he was able to get American cigarettes and coffee, among other rationed items, when others could not. "They would ask me how I could come up with them, but I'd tell them it was none of their business," he added with a smile.

Yet, Ernie did remember eating a lot of Spam and biscuits, so even his charm must have had some limitations.

Providing people with American cigarettes, which Ernie kept close to him even though he himself did not smoke, was a good way to make friends in England.

Ernie also recalled the support of his wife, saying she never complained about her role as a military wife, moving her family from base to base.

"Our youngsters got to see a lot of the world that others only read about," Ernie said.

When Ernie retired after 20 years of service in the United States Air Force, they returned to the family farm in Hesper Township.

As manager for the Mabel Cooperative Telephone Company Ernie used the skills he had acquired as part of AACS and converted the above ground party line telephone service to underground single party service, which made Mabel the most modern telephone company in the area at that time.

Ernie continued to help on the family farm, where Doug now lives, until the age of 93. He joined his wife at the Aase Haugen home in December of 2011 and continues to reside there.

Ernie is a life member of the Mabel Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Mabel.

Ernie will celebrate his 98th birthday on May 29.