114 World War II veterans fly to D.C. as part of national honor movement

09/30/2010 12:00 AM

04/18/2011 6:21 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. —In the end, they were just boys from Kansas. They were farmers, postmen, electricians and teachers.

They were boys six decades ago when they faced enemy fire, flew bombing missions, marched in jungles and over frozen ground and, of course, invented things out of necessity and on-the-spot.

It was that courage, stamina and brilliance that led succeeding generations to call them "The Greatest Generation."

It was precisely those reasons that 114 aging men from Kansas were flown to the nation's capital earlier this week as part of a grassroots movement to honor World War II veterans.

On a 50-hour visit Tuesday and Wednesday, the veterans from Kansas visited the World War II Memorial, Iwo Jima Memorial, the Korean and Vietnam War memorials and Arlington National Cemetery. They also participated in a flag- raising at Fort McHenry, which nearly two centuries ago prompted Francis Scott Key to write the words for "The Star-Spangled Banner."

They did all those things and more before flying back to a homecoming celebration as their families and friends welcomed them back to Wichita.

The Kansas veterans were sponsored by Central Prairie Honor Flights, based in Great Bend. As part of a national Honor Flight movement, the group identifies World War II veterans and flies them to Washington — at no cost to the veteran.

Although the veterans represent all areas of Kansas, the bulk on this trip were from Sedgwick and surrounding counties. The average age was 83.

It was a whirlwind trip — a blur of images and sounds from the moment the veterans arrived in Baltimore where, as their plane taxied across the runway, fire engines were pulled onto the tarmac to form a gauntlet and shoot water cannons over the plane as it pulled to a stop.

As they climbed off the plane, each veteran was greeted with cheers and applause. People, mostly strangers, lined up to shake their hands.

"Thank you, Marine, ooh-rah!" one shouted.

"It is my last ooh-rah!" the veteran said as he was wheeled off the plane.

At the World War II Memorial, some were pushed in wheelchairs or slowly walked the perimeter, stopping for pictures in front of the Kansas pillar or brushing their fingers along the letters of their home state.

Some teared up when they thought of their buddies — the ones who hadn't made it.

Walter Pfister, 83, took pictures of each of the state pillars where his buddies were from. He was just 18 and a U.S. Army sergeant when he was sent to Dachau concentration camp and took pictures of human bodies that had been stacked like cordwood.

He later guarded Nazi war criminals.

"One of the prisoners hand-painted a plate that I bought for a pack of cigarettes and sent to my mother for Mother's Day," he said.

Of the nine buddies, he's the last still alive.

"One guy drowned. Another went berserk," he said. "It goes on and on.

"I'm writing my memoirs. I'm taking notes while I am here."

John Shrock, 84, is a retired farmer from Tyro, near Coffeyville. He was 17 and onboard a Navy ship during World War II.

"I seen the world — the East Coast, Panama Canal, Saipan," he said after seeing the World War II Memorial. "Not bad for a country boy."

But now, they are old men with trembling hands, who have difficulty opening water bottles but insist on letting women go through doors in front of them.

Some of them are bemused when tourists come up to them and ask to have pictures taken standing next to them.

They stood or sat in wheelchairs in silence at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery where a special wreath was laid in their honor before the changing of the guard. Air Force Junior ROTC cadets came up to the veterans and shook their hands.

Loren Corliss of Wichita, a B-24 pilot, was chosen to help lay the wreath.

"I was so thrilled," said Corliss, 88. "I was just afraid I'd do something to mess it up."

No worry, said Sgt. Kyle Obrosky of Topeka, who helped lead the ceremony and who serves at Arlington.

"We do this for them."

On the trip, the veterans joked with each other and offered decades-old G.I. humor.

"Smile, you're on candid camera," one said as he took pictures of other veterans.

"Did you get a good picture?" another asked. "Why don't you put it on the back of a pinup?"

But beyond the joshing, raw emotions often lay just beneath the surface.

It was a tough trip for some of the participants. Mark Collins, 54, had initially signed up for the trip to take his 89-year-old father, Robert.

But his father died less than a week ago.

He came on the trip anyway, to honor both his dad and his brother, Gary, who died during the Vietnam War, on Sept. 28, 1968 — 42 years to the day the group visited the Washington memorials.

"I have so many emotions, it is hard to talk," Collins said.

He wore his brother's dog tags and reproductions of the ones that were his father's.

"My dad wanted to go so bad," Collins said.

"I just wish we could get all of the veterans here. They deserve it."

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