WASHINGTON — What does that World War II word ‘snafu’ mean again?
Korean War veteran Donald Matthiessen, of Sterling, gave a censored version of the answer: “Situation normal, all fouled up.”
Thursday’s Honor Flight No. 25 of the Quad Cities almost never got off the ground. After the plane struck an owl on its way to the Quad Cities airport, there was the possibility of the flight being canceled. It wasn’t, but takeoff was delayed for nearly 3 hours.
Then there was the matter of memorials in Washington being closed to the public because of the federal government shutdown.
And, while the 92 veterans – about 60 from the Sauk Valley – were touring the sights, the death of a Connecticut woman who tried to ram her car through a White House barricade led to a temporary lockdown of the Capitol.
Despite all of that, Thursday’s Honor Flight was “one of the most successful flights we’ve ever done,” hub director Bob Morrison said.
The late flight meant a visit to the Vietnam Memorial wall had to be scrubbed. And the shutdown prevented the veterans from going to the Udvar-Hazy Center Air & Space Museum.
But this Honor Flight was the first from the area to tour the 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon. It also got to add a bus tour of Fort Myer to the itinerary.
Ninety Korean War veterans made the trip; two served during World War II.
The schedule broke from doughnuts and coffee at the airport to a tearful announcement from the Sun Country Airlines pilot that the flight was being delayed. The jet had struck an owl on its landing into Moline and the airline had to be certain there was no safety risk.
After 2 hours of “hurrying up and waiting,” another military expression shared often Thursday, the plane’s engine was tested on the runway as more than a dozen veterans watched from a window. Some cheered as the engine started up and again as the announcement came that the trip was a go.
Shortly after 10 a.m., about 3 hours off schedule, the plane was in the air on its way to the nation’s capital.
“I’ve been looking forward to this trip with my son [Brian] for quite some time,” said Lowell Grummert of Sterling.
Grummert was drafted as an infantryman.
“My life was as worse as you can get, an infantryman with a rifle,” Grummert can say with a laugh now.
“That’s it, you just go out in the front line. No specialty, just a rifleman. You slept with your rifle.”
“Freedom is not free”
Due to the morning’s delay, only about 15 minutes could be spent at the Korean War Memorial, if the veterans were going to have time to see the 4 p.m. “changing of the guard” at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
A barrier awaited veterans and on it a sign that read: “Due to the government shutdown, all national parks are closed.”
A handful of congressmen helped veterans get into the World War II Memorial.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, removed the barrier for veterans. A handful of tourists of Korean descent waited outside and watched as veterans were granted access no others were given.
“I waited 2 years, did they think a barrier was going to stop me?” said veteran Melvin Haenitsch of Ashton.
As Craig DeDecker led his father Richard’s wheelchair into the monument, Braley put his hand on Richard’s shoulder.
“There’s nothing more special than being here father and son,” Braley said. “I would’ve loved to have taken my dad here, but he passed away.”
Different than the other war monuments in the Washington mall, the Korean War monument is filled with detail.
Sculptures of life-sized soldiers wearing rain gear stand out in the open there, while the faces of every occupation that had a hand in the Korean War effort are embossed into the memorial wall.
Gene Medlar of Oregon remembered telling his mom that he was being sent to Korea, after being stationed for a short while in the States.
“She knew something was up and she was worried,” Medlar said. “I told her I’m going to Korea. I said: ‘Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll come home.’”
Medlar was impressed with the changing of the guards.
“They’re so polished,” Medlar said of the soldiers. “That’s really something. I’ll never forget that.”
Having to cancel the Lincoln Memorial and not being able to access the Iwo Jima Monument, a former Rock Island Arsenal worker, who is now stationed at the Pentagon, arranged the visit to the new 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon for the Honor Flight veterans.
William Limond of Morrison and Daniel Frankfother of Milledgeville were impressed with the reception they received coming home.
Everywhere Honor Flight veterans went, whether it was getting off the plane in Washington, getting on the bus there, or arriving to the airport, they were met by people to give them a thank you and a handshake.
Students from several schools in Illinois and Iowa, as well as family members, wrote letters to veterans. They were passed out during “mail time” before leaving Washington Dulles Airport.
The Quad Cities International Airport reception, however, was the grandest.
Hundreds of family, friends and veteran supporters made a path for veterans to exit the airport in the Quad Cities. A bagpipe played and a grade school band provided patriotic music.
“I came home through Seattle, and we had a few people there to welcome us, and some dancers,” said Army veteran Limond. “We just went straight home after that. Nothing like we had here.”
“I thought it was great,” Frankfother said. “I won’t forget it. I must’ve shook a thousand hands.”