Remembering the Honor Flight to Washington and More

      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 flight.

 This 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.

     On 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.

     Inside 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.

     Our 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.

     It 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).

     We 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.

     Our 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.

     During 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.

     Our 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 Unknown.

     My 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.

     The 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”?

     On 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.

 I 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.

While 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.

     The 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.

     Dancey 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.

     The 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.

     It 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.

     When 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.

     We're 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!

                                                                                                         —John Riedell

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