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A flight to remember

Honor Flight Network takes area veterans on monumental 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 president’s 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 monument’s cavernous interior, time — if just for a moment — stands still. OUTLOOK PHOTO: SHANNON O. WELLS - Erik Tobiason, center, president of Honor Flight of Portland, corrals a group of 50 Oregon-based veterans and their guardians at the National World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Sept. 18. The memorial was the first among several visits to military-related monuments and sights in the nations capital.

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 nation’s 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 Oregon’s Portland chapter — visited the nation’s capital from Thursday, Sept. 17, through Sunday, Sept. 19. 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 Cemetery’s 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.”

“It’s a wonderful concept,” he said during a break between stops. “It’s 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 that’s very gratifying.”

Halberg, 91, was among those overcome during the group’s Friday morning visit to the National World War II Memorial. A plaque dedicated to the May 1945 Raid on Taipei, Japan, 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 couldn’t believe I’d 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 daughter’s and my favorite moment.”OUTLOOK PHOTO: SHANNON O. WELLS - Gresham resident Roland Rollie Halberg pauses for a photo before a statue at the U.S. Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va., near Washington, D.C. Halberg was among 50 Portland- and Eastern Oregon-area based residents who visited the nations capital Sept. 17-20 as guests of the Honor Flight Network of Eastern and Portland, Oregon.

Welcomes to remember

The group gathered for a send-off banquet on Wednesday, Sept. 17, at the Shiloh Inn near Portland International Airport and departed for Washington’s 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 it’s 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.OUTLOOK PHOTO: SHANNON O. WELLS - Beaverton resident and World War II veteran John Samuelson and his grandson Xander Samuelson chat in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The Washington Monument is in the background. Xander served as a guardian for his grandfather on an Honor Flight of Oregon Network trip to the nations capital.

“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 nation’s 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 Dick’s ongoing work to help veterans, Erik and his dad co-founded the Bend-based Honor Flight chapter in 2010. OUTLOOK PHOTO: SHANNON O. WELLS - Honor Flight Network of Eastern and Portland assemble at the base of President Abraham Lincolns statue in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The veterans joined their voices to sing God Bless America on Saturday morning, Sept. 19.

With 12 successful trips between them, Erik feels good about the service the nonprofit, donation-dependent group provides.

“I think it’s 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 they’re 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 Roosevelt’s labyrinth-like memorial was added as a regular Saturday lunch spot. “We didn’t 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. It’s 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, Friday’s 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. It’s 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 contingent’s visit, complete with a U.S. Marine Corps Color Guard ceremony.

“It’s 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. “I’d like to come back (to D.C.) and spend about a month.”OUTLOOK PHOTO: SHANNON O. WELLS - World War II veteran Harold Englet chats with U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-District 4) in the Visitors Center of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Sept. 18. Blumenauer greeted Englet, who was among 50 veterans on an Honor Flight of Oregon-sponsored tour of the nations capital city.   6) Red Fortner, a Gresham resident and World War II veteran, takes a load off at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Behind him is his son, R.D., who served as Reds guardian companion on the Honor Flight of Oregon tour.   7) During a plane flight from Washington, D.C., Lyle Wescott, a Northeast Portland resident, reads a letter from an elementary school student thanking him for his service in World War II. Honor Flight veterans were treated to mail call on the last leg of their flight.

The sweep of the memorial amazed East Multnomah County resident Jim Riopelle, who served with the U.S. Army’s 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. “It’s beautiful. I didn’t expect that.”

While he’s 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 I’ve ever witnessed,” he said. “I really didn’t know anyone on this trip. I was glad to see them come out of the woodwork.”

Oregon connections

Friday’s 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 nation’s 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.

“It’s a rewarding experience you get to share with people,” he said. “It really profoundly affects the veterans. One guy thanked me five times. It’s 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 he’ll 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 can’t 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 I’m here.”