On October 23rd, 2013 it was my true privilege to accompany Veteran Leonard Shepler to Washington D.C. as part of the 11th flight hosted by Honor Flight Northeast Indiana. It was also special to learn that Leonard and I are neighbors of sorts, as we are both local residents of Waynedale.
For those of you who are not familiar, HFNEI (Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana) is a non-profit organization that has sent over 700 veterans to see the WWII Memorial built in tribute to their service. Along the way are many other sights, well deserved accolades and surprises. Please read on as we take you along throughout our fantastic day in Washington.
It was a very early start to the day as Doug, Leonard's son, picked him up and brought him to Hanger 39 at the Fort Wayne International Airport. During the check in process, Leonard received a snappy WWII black hat, a veteran t-shirt and a lanyard with his name. A hot, delicious breakfast provided by Waynedale American Legion Post 241 began at 6 a.m. and was served by volunteers. Banquet tables were decorated in red, white and blue solid color tablecloths which is a key to keeping the groups together and the organizational skills of the Honor Flight Board. The color coding helps keep everyone on track and where they need to be throughout the day, from seating arrangements to what bus you are assigned. Members of the Patriot Guard Riders surrounded our dining area at attention holding American flags.
Honor Flight Board President Bob Myer made opening comments thanking our hosts, Tom Kelley and Barb Kelley Kraegel, and then outlined the day's schedule. Colonel Augustine, Commander of the 122nd Fighter Wing followed and spoke respectfully of the commitment and sacrifice made by the men in the room. We all joined together in singing the national anthem and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Then Leonard and I filed through the hall into the lounge where representatives of Kingston Healthcare took pictures of each Guardian and Veteran together. Members of the Walgreen's team handed out disposable cameras (with free developing at any Walgreen's) to each Veteran as well as coupons for developing photos for the Guardians. They also distributed premade Honor Flight goody bags with essentials such as pocket tissue, snacks, and even a handmade lap quilts made by Roanoke American Legion Post 160 volunteers.
From there we passed through TSA who checked our identification. As we were waiting to exit the hanger to board the plane, people were lining the holding area, displaying signs and clapping for each veteran. The smiles were endless. Leonard bade Doug goodbye and into the dark, brisk morning air we moved through waving flags where we boarded the plane. The flight attendants welcomed us aboard and we took our seats and settled in. Just as we were waving our farewell to the crowd assembled, a fire truck saluted us with an arc of water and we taxied away.
During the flight, Leonard and I had a chance to become acquainted. I learned he had his private pilot's license so he knew each step our pilot was taking and was enjoying being in the air again. During the beginning of the war, he had been an electrician in Hawaii wiring barracks. At Midway he helped extend runways and in Guam he drilled coral rock to crush and make asphalt. He assisted in building hospitals for the men injured at Iwo Jima. Leonard served for a total of 39 months, 26 months of that was overseas. He left Guam the day President Roosevelt died.
After the war, Leonard had many different callings in life becoming a 6th grade schoolteacher for 17 years, and later a minister for 10 years. He had his Masters in Religion and did missionary work in Mexico for six months and during our flight, he shared photos of that trip as well as current pictures of his family. He'd experienced a lot of loss in his life; his son David, his daughter Becky and his wife Joy had all passed. Leonard is very proud of his two sons, Doug who lives in Fort Wayne and Tim who resides in Homewood, Alabama. Six grandchildren are also blessings in his life. Leonard's faith has been instrumental through the years.
We enjoyed a second breakfast compliments of U.S. Airways Charter complete with yogurt, a muffin and banana. Due to a strong tailwind, 51 minutes later we were taxiing into Regan National airport where two more fire trucks doused us with a water salute. Leonard and I waited until towards the end of the group deplaning. The jet way into the terminal was adorned with flags. Board member Sandie Myer stopped each veteran and with tears flowing, bestowed a kiss on each cheek. As we entered the waiting area at the gate, I didn't know where to look first. There was a quartet playing music, balloons floated and there was a sea of beaming faces all around us, everyone was clapping. As we wound through the crowd, many people reached out to shake Leonard's hand, thanking him for his service.
Bob Foster, a Veteran who is a Waynedale resident said, "I was impressed by the sendoff when we left Fort Wayne and the reception we received when we arrived in D.C. You have never seen so many people giving you thanks and praise, like I was going to heaven and they were welcoming me home." Bob was a tank mechanic in Army who was wounded in January of 1945 in the Battle of the Bulge. He was personally decorated by President Truman and had dinner with Dwight Eisenhower, President Truman and Field Marshall Montgomery. Five days later they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
I spotted a volunteer through the throng of people waving her arms at me, saying come this way. Suddenly a man toting a laptop computer and a duffle bag ran alongside us. "Hello, I'm Tim, Leonard's son." In the excitement of our reception, I'd forgotten that Tim had just flown in from Alabama to meet Leonard and spend the day with him. We moved through the airport to the three waiting buses and boarded the red bus (better known as the "red hot" bus as our bus leaders nicknamed us.)
Our first stop was the World War II Memorial. We were greeted by Indiana Congressman Marlin Stutzman and his wife Christy. Members of Senator Joe Donnelly's staff were also present to welcome us. An American flag, folded into a triangle was left on the front side and on the rear side of the Indiana state stone. For an hour we wandered about the memorial, noting the beautiful fountains and the bronze engravings called "reliefs" depicting scenes highlighting sacrifice and determination. The Washington Monument was in the distance, surrounded by scaffolding due to repairs being made from a recent earthquake in Washington. Knots of Veterans and Guardians chatted and made acquaintance. In the warm breeze and sunshine, memories were relived and shared. Many quotations and inscriptions throughout the memorial helped us to reflect upon the determination of a nation and a generation. My favorite quote was found in the Western Corner. Written by Harry S. Truman "Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices."
The Veterans all gathered near the fountain on the Pearl Harbor side to pose for a group picture. As all the men, some standing, some in wheelchairs, saluted for the photo, there were very few dry eyes. We boarded our appropriate bus, did roll call and as we toured sights of Washington, enjoyed a fresh box lunch from Arby's. Our tour bus director spouted facts about each building as we passed by, the Pentagon, the White House, the Smithsonian, and the Washington Monument. We saw the Capitol Building, Ford Theatre and Martin Luther King Memorial.
We arrived at the National Mall also known as the "big three." Our first stop was the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Here "Our nation honors her sons and daughters, who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met." With a squad of bigger than life size stainless steel soldiers in formation, a shining granite wall etched with war figures and the Pool of Remembrance under a canopy of trees, an inscription aptly read, "Freedom is Not Free."
I left Leonard and Tim to enjoy some father and son time and walked over to the Vietnam Wall. The cobbled stones leading to the wall made it a bit rough going for those in wheelchairs. I saw one Guardian working with a park volunteer to get an etching of a name of a soldier who had given his all. It was quiet as people reflected and traced their hands across some of the 58,272 names on the wall. A large bronze statue nearby named "The Three Soldiers" was bordered by patriotic wreaths.
The climb up the steps to the Lincoln Memorial was impressive. The marble sculpture commemorates the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. At 19 feet tall it creates a feeling of awe. The elevators brought the Veterans and their guardians up to view the memorial and I overhead people murmuring as they read the Gettysburg Address. An inscription behind the statue of Lincoln reads: "In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever."
We all reconvened on the buses and headed to Arlington Cemetery. Along the way we drove past The Marine Corps War Memorial (also called the Iwo Jima Memorial) located outside the walls of the Arlington National Cemetery. It was so moving to see it in person rather than in just a photo. Among the white headstones, as we drove through Arlington, there were two funerals being held. Horses pulled a casket and uniformed men stood at attention.
Waynedale Veteran Bob Shimer who served with the Third Amphibious Corp stated that he felt Arlington Cemetery was definitely a highlight of the day for him. He couldn't believe how impeccably clean it was and particularly liked the changing of the guard. He commented he "could have stayed another couple of days to take in all the sights."
Another Veteran from the Waynedale area, Max Graf, shared Bob's opinion about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He admired the precision of the soldiers and their movements. "How they could block out the noise and distractions and focus on their job, I don't think I could ever do that." Max served in the Navy as part of a relief crew on the tender Orion AS18. He almost didn't go on the flight with us to Washington but his daughter Elyse "insisted I go. I am so happy I went. I even ran into one of my dear old friends, Berdett Book who was also on the Honor Flight."
Not only did we witness the inspiring changing of the guard but a local school participated in the laying of the wreath which was also quite remarkable. The crowd was absolutely silent as we heard only the clicking of the soldier's shoes, the drone of an airplane overhead and the snapping of cameras. A soldier crisply moved forward and began to play taps on his bugle.
The sun had disappeared behind the clouds and the wind had picked up during our visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and we were all happy to get back onto the warm bus. We saw the Women's Memorial as we left Arlington. Had we had any women veterans on board, we would have stopped and looked around a bit. We were told it is quite beautiful. On the bus, we each received a beautiful commemorative coin and a heartfelt thank you from the bus leaders.
A short drive later and we were at the Air Force Memorial. Three stainless steel memorial spires range from 201 feet to 270 feet high and appear to be soaring; evoking the image of "contrails of the Air Force Thunderbirds as they peel back in a precision 'bomb burst' maneuver." Only three of the four contrails are depicted, as the absent fourth suggests the missing man formation traditionally used at Air Force funeral fly-overs." It was a beautiful sight and we had a splendid view of city on the horizon as the day started to wane.
Due to the temperatures many of the Veterans chose to stay on the bus at this stop but the Guardians got off to get pictures. Boston Market delivered fresh, piping hot chicken pot pies, cornbread and a chewy cookie for our supper to our location at the memorial. One thing was for sure, we never went hungry on this trip! Back on the bus we did roll call and we turned the buses back toward the airport.
We buzzed through TSA screening with a fast pass based on our name badges we were wearing. Due to the many Honor Flights coming through the airport, they have this down to a science. In fact, at our gate, a banner proudly declared that as of September 12th, 300 Honor Flights for U.S. Airways from around the nation had landed there. Another reception greeted us at the gate. We had music, swing dancers and once again, many people traveling through the airport stopped to shake Leonard's hand and express appreciation to the entire group.
Around 8 p.m. we loaded back onto our plane. Leonard said farewell to his son Tim. The flight home took a bit longer, or maybe it just felt that way after our full day. But we weren't done yet. Another surprise awaited the Veterans. During the war, one thing every Veteran always looked forward to regardless of what branch they served in was the mail call.
Envelopes and certificates were passed through the plane as one last roll call for the day was completed. The envelopes were stuffed with cards and letters, from family, friends, school classes, church groups and more.
93-year-old Waynedale Veteran Bud Jacobs felt that this was a favorite part of the trip for him. "I was completely overwhelmed. My daughter did an outstanding job getting family and friends to respond to the mail call without me knowing. I received over 35 cards plus 50 pieces from the school kids. I just cried."
Gib Whitsel felt the same way. "I never gave it much thought before I went to Washington. I served because they needed me, I didn't expect them to honor me. Talking about it is bringing tears to my eyes." He went on to say that on a recent rainy day he opened his packet of letters again and decided he would respond back to the schools. So far he has answered 15 of the letters that had the school addresses. Gib was a replacement rifleman in the 25th division infantry in the Philippines and also lives in the Waynedale area.
We landed at the airport around 9:30 p.m. and before we deplaned, Dave Rice, from American Legion Post in Decatur boarded the plane and played a final taps, ending the day for us. Inside the hangar, we were greeted by an amazing reception. The Concordia Band played, a Color Guard also from Concordia stood at attention, The Patriot Guard held flags and hundreds of family members and friends were clapping and cheering as each Veteran came through the hanger door. The Veterans each received a picture frame compliments of Kingston and Walgreen's that had 5 x 7 pictures of Veteran/Guardian photo taken in the morning plus the group picture from the WWII Memorial. There were also copies for each Guardian. A beautiful book with a treasure trove of information about the World War II Memorial named The Jewel of the Mall was presented to each Veteran. A line of young ladies from Van Wert High School bestowed each Veteran with a soft, fleece blanket.
Cindy Elzey of Rich's Auto Shop accompanied her father, Dan Spieth on this trip and shared that the homecoming was a highlight of day for both of them. Seeing all their family members gathered to welcome them home was truly a moving moment.
As the Veterans and their Guardians loaded up and headed home, the hubbub in the hanger slowly quieted except for the Honor Flight Board Members and volunteers moving about, packing items away for the next flight. For all, this was a trip of a lifetime. Even some old relationships were reestablished. And recognition was finally awarded to a group of truly deserving, brave men who unselfishly gave their all for our country.