I’m writing my blog today from Alexandria, Va., where our contingent of World War II veterans taking part in the inaugural Soutwest Minnesota Honor Flight are gearing up for tonight’s Heroes Banquet.
It’s been a busy, but wonderful day so far, starting with our arrival at the airport in Sioux Falls shortly before 6 a.m. The veterans were greeted by flag waving and cheering members of the Patriot Guard, Rolling Thunder and Legion Riders … among them Simon Koster of Worthington.
Just as the last of the veterans and guardians had arrived at our gate, we boarded a Sun Country 737 bound for Dulles Airport. Little did we know the fanfare our heroes would receive when they arrived there.
Before landing at Dulles, our pilot announced that Washington, D.C. firefighters were waiting for our plane’s arrival to stream an arch of water over the plane from either side. The veterans seated around me were quite impressed … "My goodness, would you look at that!"
The celebration continued as they unboarded, with about 50 flag-waving, hand-shaking, hug-giving Americans … from Honor Flight Ground Crew members to Air Force soldiers in uniform to little kids in strollers … waiting at the gate.
For these World War II veterans, it was almost overwhelming.
"It was tremendous – it brought tears to my eyes," said Wendell Erickson of Hills. "I thought of so many people who didn’t make it this far – they were the real heroes."
After boarding our red, white and blue labeled buses, we headed for the Air Force Memorial, located just up the hill from the Pentagon. One of the newer memorials in Washington, D.C., it is dedicated to the men and women who take to the skies in service to their country. One of the photos taken at the stop included all seven of the Air Force veterans travelling with us on this journey.
The Marine Corps Memorial, more commonly called the Iwo Jima statue, was our next stop. I had only seen this memorial from afar when I was in Washington, D.C., 21 years ago on the 4-H Citizenship Washington Focus, so I was especially looking forward to this stop.
I was also fortunate to find out that Worthington’s own Ken Thompson was aboard a ship that dropped Marines off at Iwo Jima on the first day of battle there. Ken was pulled out of our group to give impromptu comments to a group of high school students visiting the memorial. The kids were so respectful and thanked Ken for his service to our country.
The last stop of the day was at Arlington National Cemetery to see the changing of the guard. It’s such a somber place to visit, with rows upon rows of neatly organized tombstones. I can’t imagine what the veterans thought as they journeyed through the cemetery, undoubtedly some of them know of a soldier buried there.
I’ll be interviewing more veterans during the Heroes Banquet tonight about their experience at Arlington. Stories from each of our stops in this two-day adventure will be published in a special commemorative edition on May 8.
Tomorrow’s schedule includes visits to the World War II Memorial, Vietnam, Korean, Lincoln and Navy memorials and the Air & Space Museum. It will be another busy day, but one the veterans have been looking forward to!
Arrival time back in Sioux Falls is slated for 10 p.m. Saturday night. The public is invited to come and welcome their World War II heroes back home. More information on that will be included in Saturday’s Daily Globe.