On April 23, I was invited to be among those at Capital Airport who would welcome home more than 70 veterans of World War II and the Korean conflict back to Springfield from their Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. It was quite a scene. A Bagpiper led a single-file parade of veterans, many in wheel chairs, and “guardians” — family members or friends who accompanied them on their one-day, whirlwind tour of our nations capitol.
I really had no idea what this was all about until Diana Weyhenmeyer, Springfield, a friend of ours, told us about her 97 year old father and how he would be making the trip. Her father, Frederic Willard Parker, Mt. Sterling, is as sharp or sharper than most people my age. It was clearly apparent that the day he spent with his daughter seeing the Korean War Memorial, the Air and Space Museum, and several other Washington D.C. landmarks was among the most special of his life. Her smile as they got off the flight fairly well summed it all up.
What struck me as I watched this parade of veterans, men who had once put on the uniform and placed their lives into the hands of fate, was how much I regretted that members of my own family who fought in World War II were not alive to see this, or perhaps to make this trip.
My father, John Henry Morris, had his teeth shot out in North Africa. My stepfather, Charles Russell, contracted Hepatitis (which was misdiagnosed as the flu and would kill him 30 years later), probably when he was among a troop of young boys who were “volunteered” to bury the remains of hundreds of prisoner of war camp victims. Fleeing Nazis simply left them to rot, some in trenches, others just piled up in fields. My uncle, E.P. “Red” Hohmann, had a lung shot out in Italy, and lived the remainder of his very productive years with only one. Another uncle, John Martin Hohmann, was lost and presumed dead when the Japanese sank his battleship. He survived, fortunately, but never spoke about those awful days.
It is easy to wax patriotic and spout bromides about what we owe these man–and women too; members of what Tom Brokaw dubbed (and rightfully so) the “greatest generation.” None of my uncles, nor my father or stepfather, spoke of what they endured. It has to be pried out of them. In my stepfather’s case, I learned nothing from him and it was only after his death when I uncovered a box with black and white photos of a young, gangly, curly-haired boy from Missouri helping to lift corpses into a trench. It was only then I realized what horror his young life had fallen into. Yet, he went gladly, willingly, because that was what he thought was right.
I also found a dim, black-and white photo of a beautiful young French girl, which has long been a source of speculation: was she someone he loved? Did she survive? We will never know.
So it is not an empty observation to say that we may owe more than we realize to the men and women who fought, bled, and died in a time most of us only know through the history books. The Honor Flight assembly of welcome is a fitting reminder of how much we should value their service. But somehow, it just doesn’t seem to be enough.
I got a kick out of one old vet who was walking around with a blue T-shirt on that read, “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.” we laugh, because it’s funny; but we may also laugh because it is true.
Heaven help us if we ever forget what these brave men (and yes, women) did for us so many years ago. Their sacrifice is truly to be cherished.