Therese Hazzard of Cincinnati helps her great-uncle Harold Johann with his gloves upon arriving at the World War II Memorial. Mr. Johann was inducted into the Army on his 30th birthday.
Michael Temchine / Freelance Enlarge
Jennifer Feehan is a Blade staff writer who grew up near Custar, Ohio, not far from her great-uncle's farm. She traveled with Honor Flight as a guardian on the most recent trip to the World War II memorial.
Harold Johann delivered a snappy salute as he passed through the honor guard at Toledo Express Airport.
Just three weeks shy of his 96th birthday, my great-uncle settled into his seat in the charter plane bound for the National World War II Memorial in Washington, peered out the window at the men and women holding flags in salute to the boarding veterans, then turned to me.
"I stood out in formation like that many times," he said. "That's the first time I got to walk through one."
It would be a day of firsts for Uncle Hair, as he is affectionately known to my family. His first flight on an airplane, his first taste of rush-hour traffic in a major city, his first visit to our nation's capital - in his words, his first trip east of Cleveland.
A lifelong Wood County farmer, he still lives in the brick farmhouse where he was born in 1912. He doesn't like to venture too far from home.
Harold Johann is shown in his Army uniform in 1942. He fought in the Pacific theater.
Handout; not Blade photo Enlarge
Oh, he's been to a lot of places, but that was a long time ago and more than enough adventure to suit him.
"I was inducted into the Army on my 30th birthday. That was quite a birthday present," he said. "I wouldn't have gone if I hadn't been drafted. It was hard times, but I'm glad I went through it."
At 30, he was among the older draftees sent first to Camp Perry near Port Clinton and then on to Little Rock for basic training. He would spend two years overseas, fighting in New Guinea off the coast of Australia and Luzon in the Philippines.
He rarely wrote letters home during his three years away. "I'm not very good at writing," he explained. And he didn't get homesick. "There was too much going on to get homesick."
For a man who'd never been away from home, it seems extraordinary to fathom the call - and response - to duty.
Was he extraordinary? Maybe not, when you consider some 16 million Americans fought in World War II.
Is he extraordinary to his family and friends? Of course.
When Uncle Hair found out he would be on Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio's fifth trip to Washington, the news spread quickly.
His great-nephew, Matt Mathias, who works as assistant EMS chief in Maumee, quickly signed up as a volunteer medic for the trip. Another great-nephew, Chris Kandik, an English teacher in Washington, took the day off and met us at the memorial, as did my sister, Therese Hazzard, who flew in for the day from Cincinnati.
We all feel a bit possessive of Uncle Hair, a bachelor who never had children or grandchildren but treated us like we were his own.
My brothers and sisters and I grew up playing at his house. He joined us for Sunday dinner and endless games of cards. Today, I love taking my own sons to his house so they can hear how he served his country.
I was thrilled to accompany him on this once-in-a-lifetime journey where he and 27 other area veterans finally felt the gratitude of their nation, heard it in the thanks uttered by strangers, and saw it in the glorious memorial dedicated just four years ago to those who served in World War II.
"Most of these guys have never been thanked. We just think they have," said Dee Pakulski, director of Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio.
She said it's a misconception that World War II servicemen and women came home to fanfare and ticker-tape parades. That happened in some large cities soon after the war's end, but millions of soldiers returned months later to no reception at all.
Uncle Hair recalled his own return home from the war in December, 1945 - the unheated train ride from California to Chicago that lasted more than a week.
"Anytime a freight train came, they pulled us over and we had to wait for it to pass," he said.
When they finally reached Chicago, he traveled by bus to Bowling Green. He was the only returning serviceman on board, but a hero's welcome was not his concern.
He just wanted to get home for Christmas.
In case you didn't hear it then, I'll say it now: Thank you Uncle Hair for your service.
Thank you Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio for yours.