They’ve been called members of the Greatest Generation, heroes from a time when the world needed them, when everything was going wrong as World War II picked up momentum. They answered President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s call after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, and they persevered against the Axis of Evil.
Sitting in Sykes Diner in Kalispell last week, several of these men, this group of World War II veterans, were relaxed and laughing, making jokes and remembering their recent trip to Washington, D.C. on an Honor Flight with more than 70 other WWII veterans.
Rudy Bergstrom, who served in the U.S. Air Force (then called the Army Air Corps) from 1942 to 1947 flying in an emergency rescue squadron, said the trip to the Capitol would rank high in his 90 years of memories.
“This had to be one of the big ones that will be in my memory bank forever,” Bergstrom said.
The Honor Flight Network began in 2005, with six small planes flying WWII veterans out of Ohio. The program’s goal is to “transport America’s veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit those memorials dedicated to honor their services and sacrifices,” along with getting every single veteran in America, “willing and able of getting on a plane or a bus,” to visit their memorial.
The recent flight included Robert C. “Bobby” Lane, Jim Crow, Rudy Bergstrom, Walter Henry “Walt” Frazier, Francis J. “Frank” Schumacher, Raymond E. “Ray” McMillan, Dwight L. Shaw, Duane Enger, Delno Moore, and Ken Otness.
The Flathead’s veterans said they couldn’t have been more impressed with the precise planning that went into their trip, which occurred from Sept. 8 to Sept. 9 in Washington.
But before they even arrived in D.C., seven of the 10 men coming from the Flathead were given first-class service, when Sykes’ owner Ray Thompson gave them a ride on his private jet from Kalispell to Billings. The veterans said the ride took about 43 minutes.
They stayed overnight in Billings at the Boothill Inn, and then joined up with the rest of the WWII vets for their plane trip to D.C.
The whole adventure – travel, food, lodging, even tips – was free for the veterans, as well as for one guest each.
Mike Thompson, who manages the diner at Sykes, said he brought the veterans together for the Honor Flight because he’d heard about the opportunity through his research into WWII. He knows most of the men from their regular visits to the diner, and thought it would be a great trip for them. He also went along, as a facilitator of sorts.
“It’s the least you can do for these guys,” he said.
Montana’s WWII vets filled four buses, with at least 20 wheelchairs on each bus, and they received a police escort to rush them through the slow, jam-packed D.C. traffic.
The veterans toured the Lincoln, Vietnam and Korean memorials on the first day, followed by visits to the World War II memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, the Iwo Jima Memorial, and the FDR Memorial the next day.
Roy Diamond, who went on an April Honor Flight, said the Iwo Jima Memorial hit him the hardest, emotionally. Diamond served in the Pacific, and was there when the flag went up on the Iwo Jima, immortalized in the classic Joe Rosenthal photo and, now, by the memorial statue in D.C.
“I had some emotional times (while in D.C.),” Diamond said.
The group of veterans was also impressed with the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and overwhelmed at the vastness of Arlington Cemetery.
“Acres and acres of tombstones, up the hills and all over; thousands of them,” Jim Crow said. Crow, 89, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943 and served as squad leader of the Seventh Infantry in Italy, Africa, France and Germany during the war.
Everywhere the veterans went, there were crowds to greet them, shake their hands, and say thank you. The most memorable crowd, however, was the 500-plus gathering waiting for the men and women when they landed back in Billings.
Crow said one of the most fulfilling moments came when a small, 4-year-old boy stepped out of the crowd and approached him.
“He said ‘Thank you, soldier,'” Crow remembered, with hand over his heart.
For more information on the Honor Flight Network, visit www.honorflights.org.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.