I'd heard about the Peoria
Honor Flight when a runner encountered me on the frontage road where I walk.
When she saw me with a shirt saying Navy, she stopped and spoke to me about
it. Since my military service went back to before and during the Korean War,
I suppose an Old Navy shirt would have fit me even better. Her name was
Amanda Wright, and she was going to be on the medical team for an upcoming
was last year. This year I was told I could be on a flight list for June 3,
and one day got a call from a gentleman who told me he was my guardian. He
was a wirey, mustached army veteran named Gordon Franks of Laura, a
fortunate assignment for me.
the day of the flight, my wife Serafina and I had to be at the airport at
4:30 am. As we neared Gen. Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport, we
saw flags lining the road, heralding a special day.
the terminal we gathered with others and then the flight members began to go
through security. After parting with my wife, I went through without
shedding my shoes, just showing my ID checked against a list. When we were
ready for takeoff, there were 68 veterans aboard, an equal number of
guardians and some medical personnel.
jet thrust us up into the sky and our flight was on its way. Also thrusting
us aloft that morning, were all those persons who made the Honor Flight
possible, with all their work and effort, something to appreciate. Prominent
among these I'm told are the daughters of "Jack" Hanley of A. Lucas & Sons
Steel Co. ―the sisters, Margaret, Mary and Phyllis. A brother of theirs,
Tom, was a tank retriever operator for my guardian.
was a well-organized event. The night before we had a supper at Itoo Hall
where burgundy-colored caps proclaiming "Greater Peoria Honor Flight," and
color-coded T-shirts were passed out for us to wear. At the entryway on
leaving, I was given a nice thermal bag with a few things, by local
orthodontists, Drs. Kathy Arkwell and John Schuler. And the next day there'd
be other gifts (including a care package from Operation Gratitude at the end
of the trip).
flew into Dulles Airport, 26 miles from downtown Washington, D.C. We went
first to an air museum, the Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, housing a
collection of aircraft and some spacecraft including a shuttle that had not
been cleaned up from re-entry. Now that's natural history! We saw the
Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. The Super
Fortress was named after the mother of the pilot, Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., who
was born in Quincy, Illinois, and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His mother
was born in a town of Glidden, not very far from where I grew up in Western
Iowa. This town is just a few miles east of Carroll where I had worked at a
radio station and had freelanced cartoons to the daily newspaper. It seems
that many years ago I'd heard something about Tibbets being connected to the
town, but I wasn't aware until the trip came up, that the name of the plane
originated with a person there.
tour guide on the "yellow" bus was Theresa Werner, who was the first
broadcast freelancer to become President of the National Press Club, a
prestigious position. She was also in charge of shepherding the group, to
keep a schedule. Our bus captains were Nick Kontos of A. Lucas Steel, and
Dallas Bowers, a CPA.
the course of the day we visited the various war memorials, including those
for World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the flag raisers at Iwo Jima, the Air
Force memorial, and the Vietnam Women's Memorial dedicated to the women who
served in that Asian war, women who were mostly nurses. It depicts three
women in uniform: Faith praying, Hope looking skyward for a helicopter to
come and Charity holding a wounded soldier, her hand pressing his wound to
stop the flow of blood. It manifests some of the best of humanity. It is
particularly touching, not just to see but also to remember.
last stop was at Arlington National Cemetery where our bus parked near the
grave of Audie Murphy, a Texas Medal of Honor winner, and the Tomb of the
guardian and I understood there would be a time to fly a flag for someone,
but we learned afterwards that the flag flying event was actually a Calling
of Names at the WW II Memorial.
I had hoped to fly a
flag in honor of a heroic Army pilot and an Air Force veteran. The pilot
never lived to become a veteran. He
was recommended by
his CO and troop for the Congressional Medal of Honor for his personal
bravery and uncommon valor for action on Febr. 2nd, 2007, but he never
received it posthumously. He should've.
veteran was my brother Francis (I called him Francie), who died this past
February. The pilot killed in battle was his close friend, CWO 4 Keith
Yoakum, who Francie had encouraged to fly as a young man at Hemet, Calif.
Keith was like a son to Francie. Their friendship was so close that Keith
would go to the rocky upland where Francie lived and where he blent in with
his family. Francie's daughter Kathy called Keith, “Little Brother,” and he
called her “Sis,”as in, “Hey, Sis, what's up”?
Febuary 2, 2007, Yoakum was fired upon in a kill zone in Iraq, when his
Apache helicopter was riddled with bullets. The attack knocked out his
utility hydraulics, but he continued to stay aloft, flying on to protect his
wingman and to save others from ambush. During his valiant and heroic
action, his helicopter was brought down, and engulfed in flames. While he
was awarded a DSC, he should have gotten the medal his men recommended him
for. They were there.
hope Keith Yoakum, an American hero, is never lost to our national
consciousness. He is not lost to mine. And he did something quite special
for my brother. He flew a flag for my brother in his
aircraft for many hours, and apparently left word what he wanted done with
it. After Keith was killed in action, officers came to Hemet-Ryan Field,
folded and presented that flag to Francie.
a flag flying ceremony was not on the schedule, my guardian helped me unfurl
two flags that I'd brought along and fold them in the triangular form
in honor fashion ―
while we were at Arlington Cemetery. I remember as I held one end, my
guardian told me to let a little blue show on one side. He later said you
don't let the red show, just the stars, shining in the heavens. He was
familiar with folding the banner like this. Another guardian named Ron
Colgan saw us, and thoughtfully came off the bus to photograph the folding.
One of the flags was sent to the Francie's daughter Kathy, in memory of her
dad, and his friend, Kathy's “Little Brother.” By Kathy's choice and
insistence, her older sister Sandy had gotten the folded flag at my
brother's military funeral near March Field in California. Kathy received
the shell casings of the gun salute. Now she also has a flag.
other flag was given to Marine Corps veteran Charles “Chuck” Dancey of Pekin,
in remembrance of his military service. During World War II, he was
stationed in the South Pacific. Among the islands he served on, were the
Russells, a small archipelago in the Solomons about 30 miles from
Guadalcanal, where the first major offensive against the Japanese empire
took place and the scene of bitter fighting.
oversaw anti-aircraft emplacements in scattered positions, both machine gun
and machine cannon.
The night before the Americans would move to another island, he would land
on the island first, to reconnoiter it. He was put ashore in darkness to
survey the terrain, to see where they could spot their guns. Earlier in the
war, he had come through Pearl Harbor when smoke was still rising as a
result of the Japanese attack.
Returning from the
Honor Flight was an event unlike any I've ever experienced, and don't think
I ever will again. I even received a flowered lei to wear around my neck. It
brings to mind the time I flew to Hawaii aboard a Martin Mars seaplane in
1950 to be stationed at Pearl Harbor. When we came ashore, other arrivals
received leis, but I was just a sailor coming to the islands for duty. In
the Hawaiian culture, the lei is most popularly presented on arrival or
parting as a sign of affection. I wasn't expecting the flowered garland
then, but neither was I expecting it on our return from Washington.
crowd at the airport to greet us was something to see. Among them were
members of the Brothers-in-Arms motorcycle group, to which Gordon belongs.
They were standing in a row, holding flags, kind of like the other bookend
of flags by the roadway that morning. My son Shane and grandson Keegan were
in the welcoming group and caught the guardian's attention so I could see
them as they were not in front. My Lebanese friend Joe Tony was there. Joe
had been a belly gunner on a B-17 in WW II and had been on an earlier Honor
Flight, one out of Springfield. It was already dark outside, a time when my
wife has trouble driving, but I wished she could've been there, to have
shared in the moment.
had rained during part of our visit to Washington, and my guardian put my
wet, light rain jacket in a ziploc bag he had thoughtfully brought along, so
I was able to bring it back home, keeping the wet away from other things. So
part of the rain came back with us, to dry out the next day. It strikes me
that heaven weeps for some of what goes on in Washington and this country
today. It also strikes me that part of our government is not living up to
the Constitution and smacks of what we fought against in World War II.
I offered to hold an umbrella over Gordon's head during the rain, he said
that he was used to being out in the field. I understood that he was used to
being out in the elements and putting up with the inclement conditions.
veterans, but recalling what Gordon said in the rain, I think that in our
civilian America we have to “soldier on” in the inclemency from troubling
clouds of culture and governance: to fight for the “Blessings of Liberty to
ourselves and our Posterity” and for respect for the “Laws of Nature and
Nature's God. ” We need a country resplendent with a moral perspective, and
with a Declaration of Dependence as well, dependence upon our Creator! Let
such asperations and actions be the plumes in the wings of America's eagle
in an another kind of honor flight to Washington and in the skies all over
our nation--the pinions of all that America should stand for and be!