A flight to remember
Honor Flight Network takes area veterans on tour of nation's capital
WASHINGTON, D.C. As hordes of wide-eyed tourists, school groups and families mill about inside the majestic Lincoln Memorial, a somewhat motley crew of seniors donning T-shirts and ball caps is gradually herded into a lineup at the foot of the 16th presidents white-marbled feet.
With a 40-something man in a red T-shirt shouting instructions, the 50 World War II veterans slowly break into song.
As the loosely harmonized but resonant strains of God Bless America echo through the monuments cavernous interior, time if just for a moment stands still.
The touristy chatter, arm waving and jockeying for camera-ready positions transforms to reverent silence, as the focus on the weathered, but noble, faces beaming before them leaves few dry eyes.
The conclusion of the proud chorus draws applause and wild cheers.
As these Oregon-based veterans part of an Honor Flight of Portland group tour the memorials and monuments of the nations capital, performances like this are not typical, but their appearance at each stop adds an air of vitality and authenticity to the otherwise staid and somber symbols of the human cost of freedom.
Fifty veterans guests of the Honor Flight Network of Eastern Oregons Portland chapter visited the nations capital from Thursday, Sept. 17, through Sunday, Sept. 20. A subset of the Bend Heroes Foundation, the nonprofit organization provides World War II vets an all-expenses-paid visit to Washington, D.C., and many of its iconic sights: the United States Capitol, Arlington National Cemeterys Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, memorials for the Korean and Vietnam wars, and the majestic World War II Memorial on the National Mall, among them.
Accompanying the vets were 60 support volunteers, including a guardian chosen by each veteran as a companion in many cases a child or grandchild.
Roland Rollie Halberg, a longtime Gresham resident who served in the U.S. Navy Air Corps Pacific Theater from 1943 to 1946, called the trip his first visit to D.C. in several years enlightening and emotionally stirring.
Its a wonderful concept, he said during a break between stops. Its a very exciting project and is contributing much to enhancing veterans lives and letting them enjoy themselves. The main thing is establishing camaraderie with the great guys on this trip. I see some of these guys see certain things and tear up, and thats very gratifying.
Halberg, 91, was among those overcome during the groups Friday morning visit to the National World War II Memorial. A plaque dedicated to the May 1945 Raid on Taipei, Japanese Taiwan, transported him to his time training there in anticipation of the war-ending bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
I shed a couple tears at the World War II memorial when I saw the Taipei, Japan (tribute), he said. It was very moving.
Earl Bud Costello, of Irrigon (in tiny town in Umatilla County), was among the handful of Eastern Oregon veterans along for the ride with the Portland Honor Flight chapter. He was surprised how the memorials stirred war-related memories he thought were packed away long ago.
I couldnt believe Id ever tear up at all, said Costello, who chose his daughter, Kelly Mangene, to accompany him on the tour. But singing God Bless America that was very emotional to me. It was my daughters and my favorite moment.
Welcomes to remember
The group gathered for a send-off banquet on Wednesday, Sept. 16, at the Shiloh Inn near Portland International Airport and departed for Washingtons Reagan National Airport early the next morning.
Spirited fanfare greeted veterans at their layover in Chicago and particularly their destination, with schoolchildren, military personnel and practically every passenger who was passing time at the terminal whooping, hollering while waving U.S. flags and banners.
The most emotional experience to me was coming into Washington, D.C., and the way we were greeted, said John Samuelson, a Beaverton resident who served in the U.S. Marines from 1943 to 1946, while riding on the tour bus. For most of us, we got out of the service, picked up and went home and went to work. So its kind of refreshing to get acknowledgment like that.
Hal Goff of Hillsboro, who was accompanied by his grandson Eric Smith from San Jose, Calif., admitted the applause and fanfare affected him.
I teared up, he said. It really hit me.
The 95 year old served in the U.S. Air Corps as a radar specialist for B-2 Bomber planes after gaining experience working at Lockheed Aircraft. He admitted he was thrilled to be chosen to be part of an Honor Flight adventure.
I was tickled to death to be named among the ones to go, Goff said. I worked hard to get in shape to be physically able to do it.
Smith said the trip had therapeutic benefits.
The opportunity to go on this trip was a real bright light for my grandfather, he said, noting his beloved grandmother Dorothy Dot Goff passed away 18 months before. They were best friends. This really gives him a second wind.
Man behind the curtain
Using the Sheraton Pentagon City hotel in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from the District of Columbia, as a base, the Portland Honor Flight group which takes two new groups of veterans to D.C. each year tours the nations capital in two air-conditioned buses.
Pre-set wake-up calls roust guardians, vets and organizers, leaving just enough time for a quick breakfast before the bus-boarding process the first of several throughout Friday and Saturday begins. A virtual army of wheelchairs is employed to mitigate all the shuffling about.
At the calm center of the semi-controlled morning chaos is Erik Tobiason, president of the Bend Heroes Foundation and Honor Flight of Eastern Oregon (see sidebar). Inspired by his father Dicks ongoing work to help veterans, Erik and his dad co-founded the Bend-based Honor Flight chapter in 2010.
With 12 successful trips between them, Erik feels good about the service the nonprofit, donation-dependent group provides.
I think its cathartic, he said. When veterans get to get together with their fellow soldiers from the conflict, it makes them feel together a little more than if theyre sitting home, in the nursing home or wherever. It gives them a chance to share stories. The camaraderie is great, and they often share their experiences with family members.
Erik has experimented with various tour itineraries to create what he considers the best possible experience for the vets hitting as many notable spots as possible without overdoing it and thoroughly exhausting the guests.
Unlike other Honor Flight chapters that host one-day whirlwinds to D.C., the Tobiasons find three-day visits are more worthwhile not to mention relaxing.
We have mixed it up over time to create the optimal program, Erik said, noting the stop at World War II-era President Franklin Delano Roosevelts labyrinth-like memorial was added as a regular Saturday lunch spot. We didnt initially go to the FDR memorial, and had lunch at a place out on the river, but we decided to have lunch at FDR, so they can see that one. Its an example of the evolving itinerary over time.
A fitting tribute
With sunshine and temperatures in the low- to mid-80s greeting the Oregon contingent, Fridays itinerary included a leisurely morning visit to the National World War II Memorial, which is situated between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument on the mall.
Honor Flight veterans had plenty of time to take in the dignified grandeur of the elaborate monument. Its centered by a large water fountain feature encircled by 56 pillars representing all states and territories that provided soldiers during the war. Elaborately sculpted bronze wreaths created by Valley Bronze foundry of Joseph, Ore., no less decorate the tops of the pillars.
Two large columns at either end of the center court designate the Pacific and Atlantic theaters of the war.
With sightseers and other veterans groups milling about, the memorial came alive during the Oregon contingents visit, complete with a U.S. Marine Corps Color Guard ceremony.
Its a nice, peaceful place, noted Gresham resident Kenneth T. Anderson, who made several wartime excursions between San Diego and Alaska as part of the Marine Corps and Civil Service Merchant Marine. Id like to come back (to D.C.) and spend about a month.
The sweep of the memorial amazed East Multnomah County resident Jim Riopelle, who served with the U.S. Armys Air Transport Command from 1944 to 1947.
I just thought it was totally out of this world to encompass every state in the union, he said. Its beautiful. I didnt expect that.
While hes remained an active veteran through the Veterans Administration, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, Riopelle was surprised to discover a new set of brothers on his cross-country adventure.
Honor Flight is one of the most fantastic things Ive ever witnessed, he said. I really didnt know anyone on this trip. I was glad to see them come out of the woodwork.
Fridays tour continued with a visit to the U.S. Capitol, whose dome and interior Rotunda, unfortunately for visitors, were shrouded in gray scaffolding to accommodate long overdue structural renovations.
Those shortcomings were soon forgotten, however, as the veterans were warmly welcomed by four Oregon congressmen and women, including U.S. Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-District 1), Greg Walden (R-District 2), Earl Blumenauer (D-District 4), and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Portland).
Each lawmaker thanked the veterans for their service and making the effort to reminisce on their military years while visiting the nations capital.
Of all the stirring visits the veterans took in on Saturday including the Korean War and Vietnam War memorials and the stirring Marine Corps War Memorial to the Battle of Iwo Jima perhaps none was more memorable than the ride through the sprawling Arlington National Cemetery and the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
After taking in the complex, highly regimented maneuvers that led to one guard replacing another, the veterans were treated to a wreath-laying ceremony that included three representatives from the Honor Flight group.
Erik Tobiason was charged with choosing two veterans who could endure the slow walk down the marble stairs to the white-marbled tomb.
Its a rewarding experience you get to share with people, he said. It really profoundly affects the veterans. One guy thanked me five times. Its humbling and powerful to be out there.
Joe Bruer is a Southwest Portland resident who served as a U.S. Navy corpsman during the fateful battle to secure the island of Iwo Jima from the Japanese Imperial Army in February and March 1945. He said hell never forget his visit to the memorial with the Honor Flight group and the harrowing memories it brought back.
I wanted to say a prayer for all the guys who died in my arms, he recalled of the intense, prolonged battle. They kept saying, Please call my daughter. Call my son. Will you do this and that. I cant say no. This man is dying. What are you gonna do? So I say a prayer for those boys.
They should have been here, he added, but they gave up their lives and their bodies and Im here.