By Pat Maurer
Three area World War II veterans were part of the first mid-Michigan Honor Flight to Washington recently.
Honor Flight is a charity organization that flies vets to DC to see the memorials of whichever war or wars they served in. They have been taking veterans to the Washington DC War Memorials for more than nine years.
It is estimated that World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 500 a day, and their opportunity to see their memorial is diminishing by the minute.
The “Tour of Honor” is free to the veteran, with airfare, meals, a deluxe tour bus, t-shirt and other items provided at no cost. “It is our way of paying a small tribute to those who gave so much,” Organizers said.
As part of this memorial event, local school students, veterans’ families and friends all contributed thank-you cards, drawings, poems, letters and more were given to the veterans on their return flight as part of a special “Mail Call.”
Last fall an Honor Flight hub was established in Mecosta to serve northern Michigan veterans. There is a hub in Kalamazoo, serving that portion of the state including Grand Rapids and another in the Upper Peninsula in Gladstone, but up until October of 2013, there has never been a hub between the Lansing area and Mackinaw City.
Organizers say it is an experience that many vets call the “best day of their lives.”
Dan Abbott, a retiree and World War II Army Vet that moved to Farwell in 1996, said the trip was “indescribable. That trip was the most exciting experience I’ve ever had in my life, he said. “It was so fantastic I couldn’t describe it,” he said. “When we got off the plane, I was a PFC. Before it was over I felt like a general. When we got back to Grand Rapids, over 300 people greeted us. It was unimaginable.”
He said he was awed by the grandeur of the World War II Memorial. “It was impressive, phenomenal,” he said. “We were treated like kings. We went to everything imaginable in Washington DC. The trip was way beyond anyone’s imagination.”
Dan served during World War II stateside. He said he was drafted three times and declared 4-F the first two because of being blind in one eye and with limited vision in the other. “The third time they inducted me,” he said. “That was at Fort Snelling, Minnesota in 1945. I was the clerk that handled discharges.” His wife Shirley also served as a WAC from 1955 through 1958.
Dan’s guardian was from Washington D.C. and met his plane when it landed just outside the city at Dulles Airport. “I couldn’t have
had a better guide,” he said.
Each of the 70 veterans that went on the trip June 24th was accompanied by a “guardian” who escorted them to the various ceremonies and locations in Washington.
Clare Veterans’ Director Renee Haley, also an Army Veteran, was a guardian on the trip for Prudenville resident Basil D. Ciaramitaro, 93, who served in the Army during the Battle of the Bulge.
In a phone interview after his return, Ciaramitaro said it was a life changing experience for him. His daughter Marilyn Ciaramitaro added, “He hasn’t stopped talking about it for three days.”
“I loved it, I’ll never forget it, it was wonderful,” he said. “I loved how when we went through different towns, Mothers, fathers and children were waiting for us. It made me cry. There were police with the lights flashing that greeted us from the overpasses. It was marvelous.”
He said he served with the Mechanized Calvary, who spearheaded moves, driving armored vehicles into areas to draw enemy fire in Europe. “We were with Patton’s army in Germany for a while and spent 49 days in foxholes by the Alv River. We lost 50,000 men in the Battle of the Bulge, but we finally drove the Germans out.” He said he was 22 when he went in the Army and 26 years-old just after he was discharged. “We were all young men then,” he said.
Haley said, “It was an honor to be a guardian to Basil. I gained not only a ‘brother in arms’, but more important a friend in him and his family members.”
She continued, “Trying to sum up this experience is difficult at best. It was bittersweet because our WWII veterans endured conditions unimaginable by most. They are truly the ‘Best Generation,’ whose stories will soon go unheard. This was a life changing event for each of us that had the privilege to be a part of this momentous event! They [the veterans] were able to experience firsthand that this country has not forgotten them or the sacrifices that they have given to this great nation. The support that we received from Big Rapids to Washington D.C. and back to Grand Rapids was unbelievable. Hundreds of people were at each location to shake the hands and thank our World War II veterans for their service. This is something that I will never forget.”
A guardian from Clare, Mayor Pat Humphrey accompanied his wife Dawn’s 90 year-old Uncle Robert Witkovsky of Bay City.
“The trip was a very emotional time for both vets and their guardians,” said Humphrey, who served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War era. “It was a very long day, but fun for the vets who enjoyed swapping stories. It started Monday evening (June 23) with a special dinner at Ferris State University, and went from there by special bus to Grand Rapids very early Tuesday morning.” He continued. “Along the way, every overpass was lined with fire trucks with lights flashing and with firefighters to honor the veterans.”
The veterans and guardians’ flight to Washington left around 8:30 a.m., arriving in Washington DC around 11:30 a.m. where they were greeted by Honor Flight people, families and other veterans at the airport. They were bussed from Dulles Airport into DC and arrived at the World War II Memorial around 11:30 a.m. From there the group went to the Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam War Wall. “What was really neat about the whole trip was the logistics (planning) of getting everyone to all of the locations,” Humphrey said. “Everywhere we went we were greeted by crowds of people and had special police escorts around the city. It was very well orchestrated and very emotional for everyone. Uncle Bob was very, very thrilled to have the chance to visit the WWII memorial because it meant so much to them.”
All of the memorials are located near the Lincoln Memorial. Later, after Arby’s provided a sack lunch on the busses for everyone, in the afternoon the group was taken to Arlington National Cemetery to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for a moving tribute there when Honor Flight performed a special ceremony.
With the day in the nation’s capital complete, it was back to the airport and the return flight to Grand Rapids, where they arrived later that evening.
The day wasn’t over yet though. The Amway Corporation had cleared a special huge hangar, where the veterans and guardians were invited to see a World War II B17 bomber flown in that afternoon for the event. There was entertainment and a very moving “Mail Call,” which commemorated the most important time for any soldier serving during World War II. Students from 51 counties wrote letters and there were letters and cards from neighbors, friends and family waiting for each veteran.
“It was a very, very moving, emotional and fun day,” said Humphrey. “The patriotism was unbelievable. It was a long day, but the veterans handled it well. It was the experience of a lifetime for all of us.”
Photos provided by P. Humphrey and R. Haley