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Published: Sunday, 11/2/2008

Trip to memorial a tribute to area's eldest WWII vets

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Russ Rhodes, 91, of Holland and Air Force Staff Sgt. Geraldine Harris share a moment during the veteran's trip to Washington. Russ Rhodes, 91, of Holland and Air Force Staff Sgt. Geraldine Harris share a moment during the veteran's trip to Washington.
MICHAEL TEMcHINE / FREELANCE Enlarge

There was something extra special about the 28 World War II veterans who assembled on a brisk and windy morning at the Grand Aire hangar at Toledo Express Airport recently.

They would be the fifth group of northwest Ohio veterans to travel to Washington with Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio to see the memorial dedicated in their honor, but they also would be among the most frail to make the trip.

Nine of the 28 veterans who boarded the plane were age 91 or older.

Twenty of them required wheelchairs for the day, and two were on oxygen.

None of them let any of that matter.

They were treated on Wednesday to a day like no other, given a long overdue thank-you for their service and an up-close look at the memorial built to honor the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, the more than 400,000 who gave their lives.

"I wish there were words to express how I really felt about this," a beaming Vance Champion, 88, of Genoa said as the day drew to a close. "It's just a dream come true. It was wonderful."

He could not stop smiling. He was not alone.

"You couldn't ask for anything better," said Eugene "Sonny" Burchell of Toledo, whose snowy white beard helped shield him from the unseasonably brisk October day.

Since its inaugural trip in

April, Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio has flown 142 veterans to the nation's capital at no cost to the men and women who served. Traditionally, the organization has taken veterans in the order their application was received, making exceptions only for those who were terminally ill.

This time, though, Director Dee Pakulski decided it was time to bend the rules.

With winter coming on, she knew it would likely be the last chance to get another group of World War II veterans to see their memorial before next spring. For some of the aging veterans, it would simply be their last chance to go.

"We felt there were some guys that the winter was going to be pretty bad on," she said. "We wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to see their memorial."

Honor Flight decided to call up the oldest and most medically fragile on its waiting list.

They reported for duty eagerly, though not totally unmindful of their limitations.

"It's no disgrace to be old, just unhandy," quipped 91-year-old Russ Rhodes of Holland as he ambled down the aisle of the motor coach taking the veterans to their Washington destinations. "Being old is better than the alternative."

The veterans - guests of honor in what has grown into a nationwide effort to bring those who served to the World War II memorial - were in good humor and stayed that way even though the unexpectedly cold day prompted a change in their itinerary.

Their day began with a 6:30 a.m. welcome and hot breakfast at Toledo Express.

Members of the Fraternal Order of Eagles in Maumee, which paid the entire $30,000 to sponsor the flight, were there to send them off, as were fifth-graders from Monroe Road Elementary School. The students, whose "Pennies for Patriots" fund drive raised more than $1,200 to benefit Honor Flight, passed out laminated red, white, and blue stars for the veterans to wear around their necks, a penny taped to the centers.

At every turn, there was someone - or something - to pay tribute to the 27 men and one woman who had served their country so well, so long ago.

When the 50-seat charter plane touched down at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, two fire engines created a water cannon for the plane to pass through. A motor coach promptly pulled up to serve as the veterans' limousine for the day.

And, while the plane had departed Toledo with 22 trained "guardians" - volunteers who pay $400 for the privilege of assisting the veterans on the trip - others met their family members in Washington.

Marcy Yaffe flew in from Atlanta to spend the day with her father, Howard Yaffe of Toledo.

"It's a wonderful idea and the volunteers who devote their time are just amazing," Ms. Yaffe said as she watched the veterans carefully emerge from the motor coach. "I get tears in my eyes just thinking of what these people went through for us."

Brenda Reinhardt of Toledo was making her third flight as a guardian, assigned this time to the flight's lone female veteran, Elizabeth Dunipace, 91, of Bowling Green, who served in the war as an Army nurse.

"I went on the first trip to honor my Dad who didn't make it to see the memorial," Ms. Reinhardt said. "Then I did two more. The people I meet and the stories I hear and the thanks I can give are worth it to me."

As they moved quietly through the expansive memorial, some of the veterans eagerly shared those stories; others found it more painful to talk.

Many seemed amazed as they looked back on how the war plucked them out of their ordinary lives and put them in roles and situations they would never have imagined.

"I was a barber until I went into the service," said Mr. Champion, who served with the Army Air Corps. "Since I worked with small instruments, they made me a surgical technician."

Harold Smith, Sr., 84, of Tontogany said he wasn't sure why he wound up on kitchen duty on a transport ship.

"The told me to peel potatoes so I peeled potatoes," he said. "When you're in the Army, you do what you're told."

Mr. Smith, who made the trip with his son, Harold, Jr., and his friend and fellow veteran Orvil Hoseclaw of Bowling Green fought in France, Belgium and Luxemburg. He said the soldiers were not properly outfitted for the conditions, and he suffered severe frostbite that affects him still today.

At 96, Navy veteran John Fox of Toledo was the most senior member of the group. He was accompanied by his grandson, David Walczak of Toledo.

The pair circled the memorial slowly, looking at the 56 pillars representing each of the states and territories, the towering pavilions that symbolize the Atlantic and Pacific - the war fought across two oceans.

Toledoan Bill Hartman, who turned 81 the day after the trip, said he was impressed by the fountains that flowed throughout the memorial, saddened by the Wall of Remembrance where 4,000 gold stars commemorate the more than 400,000 Americans who didn't return from the war.

It was an emotional day.

"Our fathers fought World War I. We fought World War II," Mr. Hartman said, tears ready to fall. "Our sons went to Vietnam, and now our grandsons are in Iraq."

While previous Honor Flight attendees spent part of the day seeing the Vietnam and Korean War memorials and attending the changing of the guard ceremony at Arlington Cemetery, Wednesday's cold weather prompted a change in plans.

The group was shuttled to the National Air and Space Museum not far from Dulles Airport. There, they saw German and Japanese aircraft from World War II as well as an American Hellcat and the well-known Enola Gay. The docent didn't have to tell them the plane had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and altered the course of the war.

The veterans know their history and respect it. They lived it - for better or worse.

While some of the veterans on the trip were disappointed they didn't get to see the other war memorials, they didn't complain.

"We saw the most important one," Mr. Burchell said.

They were humbled by the memorial built to recognize their role in the war, a memorial that came to be in large part by the relentless effort of U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) and a massive fund-raising campaign led by former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole (R., Kansas), a fellow World War II veteran.

"It's impressive, very impressive," said Toledoan Bill Deardurff, 92, as he looked around. "It takes people with gusto to get something like this done. I got a lot of mail from Bob Dole over the years. I sent him money."

Mr. Deardurff said he wouldn't have been able to see what his donation helped pay for without Honor Flight.

"No, I don't think I would have made it," he said. "At my age, you don't travel a lot."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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