Honor Flight Vets visit Washington, D.C. Memorial
Liberal resident Jack Yowell keeps up with war news — World War II news, that is. A Navy veteran who served in the Pacific theatre, Yowell scans the American Legion newspaper he receives each month for fellow servicemen who fought in the “war to end all wars.” Sometimes he loses count. According to statistics from the Honor Flight organization, around 1,000 WWII vets die in the United States every day.
He’s not the only one paying attention. Honor Flight, started by an Ohio physician who saw a need to transport veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit those memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices, is racing the clock. Its goal: bring America’s most senior heroes to the capitol; oldest vets get top priority. Honor Flights took off in 2005, one year after the opening of the WWII Memorial.
When Yowell read about Honor Flight trips for Kansas City-area vets, he wondered, “why not Southwest Kansas?” The next day, he posed the question to his friend Tom Shook, an Army Air Force veteran and National Guard officer, over coffee. Shook had visited Washington, D.C., years before with his wife, Mary, but “a lot of the memorials weren’t even there at the time,” he said. Like Yowell, he was keen to see the commemoration of the war in which he fought.
It took numerous phone calls, letters, meetings and several months, but on Oct. 6, 2009, Yowell, Shook, Jim Odom, Carl Sappelsa and Bob Anderson, all of Liberal, boarded a bus at 4 a.m.
Mike Waters of Cimarron organized the project, which, Shook said, “had become much more complicated by this time.” Picking up veterans along the way, the group traveled to Denver to board a plane to Washington, where 300 Kansas veterans — all of them in their 80s —had gathered.
The trip’s early departure was the beginning of five days that brought back memories in more ways than one.
“They kept us on a strict schedule,” Yowell said, “up at 5 a.m., on the bus at 6 a.m. They took us all over the place, not just to the World War II memorial.”
“I think,” Shook added with a chuckle, “they forgot how old we were.” However, Honor Flight provided guardians to help men in wheelchairs and those with special needs. Shook’s two sons, Rick and Randy, came along. The journey was a welcome opportunity for them to learn more about their father’s experiences as a B-24 bombardier, said Mary.
“He’s never talked about it a lot, even though they have always been curious,” she said. “I think it was something they really wanted to do with their dad. They felt it was a privilege.”
Both vets said the sense of camaraderie was overwhelming, as servicemen from all branches exchanged stories.
“You got to talk to others; you got to remember the good and bad,” Yowell said. “It was kind of hard to get to sleep at night.”
Bystanders and tourists joined in as well.
“When we arrived at the airport, people stood and clapped and gave us little flags,” Shook said. “We all wore matching shirts, so people could identify us and in Washington, they came up to say ‘thank you’ and shake our hands. I don’t think we thought of ourselves as heroes,” but many of the people they met along the way clearly did.
These WWII vets were not content to accept praise for their own deeds; they wanted to remember companions who gave their lives, as well as family members of other generations who served.
“For me the highlight of the trip was the ceremony we had the second time we visited the memorial,” Yowell said, adding, “I can’t talk about it without tearing up.”
The first time the Honor Flight participants viewed the WWII memorial, “it was daylight and everyone just looked around,” Yowell said. “Later, they had us write down names of veterans we knew. At sunset, when they turned on the lights and the fountain, they read all the names the group had turned in; it took about 30 minutes. They took a wreath and put it in the pond. It was very moving.”
Yowell listed the names of his father, who’d served in WWI, his brother and two brothers-in-law, and his sons. Shook’s names included his father, also a WWI vet, along with a brother and two brothers-in-law.
“When the war started, my father would probably have taken me to the woodshed if I hadn’t signed up,” Shook recalled. “He’d been on the front in WWI, he was gassed twice, he had shrapnel wounds, he earned medals from France and the U.S. — he said it was all worth it. There was no question about serving the country. That’s what you do.”
Both in their 80s, the Liberal vets would rather tell stories about their fathers’ military careers than revisit their own experiences. It’s difficult to steer the conversation toward World War II and the sacrifices it demanded.
When they signed up as teenaged volunteers, did they realize they might die in service?
“Yeah,” Yowell said with a slight smile. Shook simply shrugged.
“The whole world had a different outlook then,” he said. “We just wanted to do the right thing.”