It's been over a year since the last Honor Flight by the southeast Minnesota hub in Rochester. It was a lot of work for the people who volunteered to make it happen, but seldom have I ever experienced anything more rewarding.

There is a more-recently-established Honor Flight hub in Duluth, and as I found out over the holidays, my high school principal and friend was able to make one of those flights this year. And, not surprising to me since he was our journalism teacher, he wrote up his experience for his local Duluth area newspaper.

The bonus was that he sent a copy to me, with permission to use it. We do get feedback from "our" vets, and usually it is a profusion of gratitude, which of course we really appreciate. But I had not yet heard an overview such as this article, so he is my guest writer this week!

Washington Welcomes WWII Vets

When you board a plane at five o'clock in the morning, it means you are up and shaving pretty early. And when you are the wife of the traveler, your head is off the pillow early, too.

Jeanne (wife) was under instructions to do a drive-by good-bye. So she drove to the airport, stopped at the entry, idled the motor, waited until her husband was safely out of the car and drove off. No Minnesota good-byes on this trip!

We boarded the plane shortly after our arrival, each WWII vet and his/her guardian. Once airborne and above the clouds, we received our first surprise - mail call!

My guardian, Tom Renier, pulled a packet of envelopes from his backpack. "I think you hit the jackpot," he said as he handed me the letters. I agreed as I eyed 28 letters in a plastic bag.

Unquestionably, reading those letters was one of the trip's highlights! I was moved by the kind words, amused by the creativity of the writers, and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of well wishes. Thank you!

There were 86 veterans on the flight. Each had a guardian. Twelve of the guardians were designated as squad leaders. Their job was to keep track of the vets in their squad. Testimony to their effectiveness is the fact that we returned with as many vets as we had when we left Duluth.

In addition, there were paramedics, a photographer and a videographer. Veterans were issued gold polo shirts, while volunteers wore blue. We boarded the bus by squad number. Our squad was last on and first off, a situation which guardian Tom said was ideal.

On the flight to Washington, Tom had the window seat. Medic Dave Johnson had the aisle seat and I sat between them. It was an easy flight because it was filled with wide-ranging conversation. You couldn't ask for two better flight companions.

On our arrival at Reagan Airport in Washington, we were greeted by a huge fire truck which sprayed water all over the plane in special greeting.

Inside the airport, hundreds of people lined the concourse to greet us. Music from WWII days filled the air. American flags were everywhere. It was very moving to see how much we were appreciated.

Still, the most consistent and highest level of appreciation came from the volunteers who gave so much of their time, energy and money. They had to pay their own way to go on the trip with us!

We boarded buses to begin our tour. We discovered early that it was not going to be an ordinary bus ride. Imagine four large buses keeping up with each other in Washington traffic!

Guardian Tom and I rode in the first bus and sat in the front row seat so we had a great view of events as they unfolded. We had been assigned a federal (Special Forces) police offer to escort us.

When our bus driver Mike gave the signal, the Special Service guy flipped the siren switch and turned on the flashing lights of his squad car. We went through Washington traffic at times well over 30 miles an hour. Think of the skill required by the bus drivers to keep up with their escort in heavy traffic!

Our first stop was the WWII Memorial. It was impressive! Just seeing the majestic memorial made our trip worthwhile. We even saw Kilroy. He was behind a section of the WWII Memorial Wall peering over some concrete blocks. Kilroy was an iconic figure drawn by military guys in WWII. He showed up everywhere. In Europe if you saw Kilroy on an enemy bridge or on a village building, it was a sign the area was secure. His was a comforting figure.

All memorials were impressive but three moved me deeply: the memorial to Vietnam Nurses, the Vietnam Memorial and the Wall of Stars Memorial.

The Vietnam Nurses Memorial, modest in size, consisted of three bronze figures. One giving aid to a fallen soldier represented service. Another, looking skyward, represented faith. The third symbolized hope. The faces of all three nurses were touchingly lifelike. Eight nurses died in Vietnam, five killed in a helicopter crash. Eight trees were planted behind the memorial as a living tribute.

Tom, who had once taken his family to see the monuments, was impressed with the tribute paid to the nurses. "Compared to the other large grand memorials this one is small," he said, "yet it is no less magnificent."

Interestingly, on an earlier business trip to Washington, Tom visited the Memorials. The date? 9/11.

To stand in front of the "Wall of Stars" is to be humbled. Four thousand gold stars shine in silent tribute to those men and women killed in action in WWII. Each star represents 100 fatalities. I have no problem telling you that I got out of my wheelchair, placed my hat over my heart and stood at attention, remembering a cousin killed in the battle of Iwo Jima, a boyhood friend and fighter pilot shot down over Italy, and men in my own outfit who are included in the census of the golden stars. Still standing, I recalled others who had served and survived, like my dad in WWI, two brothers, my brother-in-law who flew 33 missions over Germany, and classmates.

The Korean Memorial is distinctly different. Nineteen life-size statues of men in combat dress make up the memorial. On the western side is a granite wall several feet tall. When the sun comes up in the morning, it casts a shadow of the 19 figures against the wall, making the number of soldiers total 38. It is the 38th parallel which divides North and South Korea. This concept by the sculptor hit me as both highly creative and quietly magnificent.

Two grand receptions awaited us on our trip home. Volunteers sent us off at the Reagan Airport. A group of dancers put on a display of the jitterbug, while loud speakers poured out such songs as "White Cliffs of Dover" and "Come Fly with Me" and, of course, songs by the Glenn Miller orchestra.

As we flew into Duluth we saw a long row of parked police cars with their lights flashing. What a sight! What a welcome home! Once inside the airport, we were greeted by hundreds of people including young cheerleaders, old citizens and those in between. A long line of sharply dressed police officers were there standing tall, hands outstretched in greeting. Music was provided by a bagpipe band and the popular Spirit Valley Drum and Bugle Corps.

And still with us, as they had been all day, were our volunteers, still smiling, still expressing unwavering appreciation to all us old guys. Their goodness made my heart sing!

~ By Ray Pearson, Duluth

And reading his account of his Honor Flight makes my heart sing too! Getting our WWII vets to Washington to their memorial is the least we can do to show our gratitude.