August 31, 2012

Great Bend WWII veteran set to break Honor Flight record

Looks like this record won’t last long.

Looks like this record won’t last long.

A month ago, Wichitan Don Revert became the oldest World War II veteran to fly out of Kansas on an Honor Flight, a national grassroots effort that sends WW II vets to Washington to see their war’s memorial. The flight came about three weeks before his 100th birthday.

But Sam Maier, a 101-year-old WWII vet from Great Bend, will break that record later this month, when he is expected to take part in an Honor Flight out of Wichita.

He swears he already has his bags packed.

“Sounds like a good deal,” Maier said of the trip.

Being the oldest to make the flight isn’t a surprise to him. He’s used to being the oldest.

Maier’s family had discussed trying to get him on a flight for a while and the topic came up again during his 101st birthday party in June.

“I didn’t think Daddy would be interested,” said Judy Messersmith, who lives with her father in the same house her parents built in the early 1960s. “But he was so excited about it.”

Still, she was concerned the trip would be too strenuous for her father.

“I thought he was getting too old to make a trip like that, Messersmith said. “So I checked with the doctor, and he said, ‘Sure, he can go. He’s in great shape for 101.’ ”

Nephew Jerry Postlethwaite contacted Hutchinson-based Kansas Honor Flight, which recently took over for a Great Bend group as the main hub for the flights, about submitting an application for his uncle. Veterans are normally put on flights in the order their applications are received, said Mike VanCampen, the organization’s president.

But veterans can be moved up the waiting list if their health is declining or they are, say, 101, he added.

So Maier will be one of 29 veterans on the flight that leaves Sept. 26 and returns Sept. 28. Most will fly out of Wichita and some out of Kansas City. The organization has already set dates for its third flight, Oct. 17-19. VanCampen said veterans or their families who aren’t sure about an application’s status should call Kansas Honor Flight at 620-546-2400.

Even the youngest veterans are creeping into their mid-80s. One of the vets going on the September flight was 16 when he joined the military toward the tail end of the war. He is now 83, VanCampen said.

“Time is running out for these veterans,” he said.

The $650 cost for each veteran is paid by funds raised by the nonprofit group. Veterans travel with guardians, or helpers, who pay their own way. Bob Maier will be Sam’s guardian.

Besides being Sam’s son, Bob is well qualified for the role. He’s a retired Newton firefighter and EMT.

“I feel better knowing Bob will be there,” Messersmith said.

Sam Maier’s hearing isn’t very good, and he needs a walker or wheelchair to get around.

“His health isn’t as good as it used to be, but it’s not bad,” said Bob Maier, who is Hesston’s fire marshal. “The big problem is he falls quite a bit. I’ll ask him if he hurts anywhere and he says, ‘No, I don’t hurt at all.’ ”

Sam Maier was one of 10 children raised on a farm near Susank, which is 8 miles north of Hoisington. His folks were poor, but the family worked hard. Sam was the second oldest, though his older brother, David, died from typhoid fever and pneumonia at age 9.

Those were oil-boom days for Susank, which had five grocery stores, numerous lumberyards and schools. The railroad ran through town. Most of that is gone now.

Sam Maier was still helping on the family farm and working for a gas service company when he was drafted at age 30 by the Army in early 1942. He served in the newly created Army Air Corps as a military police officer and was never sent overseas during the war, Bob Maier said.

He was stationed at Lubbock, Texas, in 1945, when he met Betty Jo Mangum, an 18-year-old working as a civilian in the base’s laundry. They were married after the war and lived in Susank until moving to Great Bend in 1963.

Betty Jo went on to get two master’s degrees, working as a school teacher and speech therapist and doing billing late nights for an attorney. Sam returned to work for the gas service company.

“Mom was hyperactive and dad was laid back,” Bob Maier said. “Total opposites. But they got along and were married for more than 50 years.”

Betty Jo died on Pearl Harbor Day in 2000.

“She would have been tickled to see him go on this flight,” Bob Maier said. “He was always kind of back in the shadows, but she was very proud of him. He is probably one of the gentlest, friendliest guys you would ever want to meet.”

Messersmith said it’s probably been 40 years since her dad flew on a plane, a trip her parents took to Puerto Rico.

“But I know he’s looking forward to this,” she said. “He’s going to be just fine.”

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