By Sgt. Michael Cost, 100th Missile Defense Brigade, Colorado National GuardOctober 30, 2008
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Applause rang out Oct. 17 inside the terminal of Baltimore/Washington International Airport as elderly men and one elderly woman debarked their 737 aircraft to begin a weekend none of them would ever forget. Whether teary-eyed or smiling proudly, the World War II American veterans walked, caned or moved by wheel chair toward the exit of the airport and into an adventure some may never experience if not for the help of a local Colorado organization.
Rocky Mountain Honor Flight is a unique organization which provides these veterans an opportunity to not only see a historic memorial built in recognition of their service more than 60 years ago, but also enables them to tour the city of Washington D.C. for two days.
"This is all made possible by donations from various other organizations, these veterans do not have to pay for anything," proclaimed Mark Schoenrock, a retired U.S. Army colonel and currently a "Guardian" with RMHF.
"This is all about them and the sacrifice they made ... some of these guys have the most amazing stories," said Schoenrock.
"We were in the Guadalcanal and most of our planes had taken pretty heavy damage, there were five still able to fly, but we only had enough fuel for three," said retired Air Force Col. John Thompson as he stood under the Guadalcanal portion of the Iwo Jima memorial in D.C.
"So three pilots, myself included, hopped in the planes and took off. The men on the front lines were taking quite a beating from the Japanese so we swooped around and did a strafing run down their line taking out quite a few of them," said Thompson.
"As you can imagine, when you have a couple thousand Japanese troops firing up at you, you are bound to take a hit. The guy behind me was hit in the coolant but we just turned around, making
a second strafe past their line and this time I got hit in the coolant. By the time we were done, you could see the Japanese running back and that allowed those boys on the front lines a chance to regroup and press forward," said Thompson with a dead serious look on his face.
"After all of that took place, that ridge where we made our runs was known as 'Bloody Ridge'," Thompson said.
These trips to the U.S. capitol are a great opportunity not only for these veterans to see the memorials, but to share each other's stories and meet other veterans as well, some of whom served in the same areas and in the same conflicts.
"John Thompson saved our butts," said Bill Allen, a retired United States Marine when speaking of the strafing runs he and the other two pilots did that day at Guadalcanal.
"He kept the Japanese off of our necks and here we are just meeting for the first time," said Allen.
"I sat down and starting talking to him about his story and I just couldn't believe it ... we were both at Bloody Ridge and never knew each other and here we meet ... it's just great," said Allen excitedly.
All these former service members had their accounts of what happened to them; some recalled battles they took part in which have since become a huge part of history in this country.
"I was at the Battle of Iwo Jima for six days and our job was to conduct mop-up operations there," said Gerald Krutsch, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. "I was a staff sergeant at the time and I was a light weapons section leader. We had the .30 caliber machine gun, 61 millimeter mortars as well as a Browning Automatic Rifle and several riflemen to give support," said Krutsch.
"We encountered sporadic fighting throughout the six days I was there and by the time we were done Ac"a,! there were only five Japanese survivors," Krutsch proclaimed.
Krutsch and a Japanese survivor of the battle were later featured in a Japanese documentary called "Iwo Jima Ac"a,! The Island of Death." Krutsch received a Bronze Star for valor during the battle.
These veterans got to tour Washington D.C. and see many different memorials, all at no cost to them. Food was even provided for them by RMHF. Most of them, bound by wheelchairs or having to use walkers to get around with, would have never had the opportunity to be involved in such an adventure due to financial reasons, overall physical condition or other circumstances Ac"a,! but it was made possible by RMHF.
"On this trip we have 35 veterans and 15 guardians," said Schoenrock. "It is up to the Guardians to take care of the veterans, get them to these sights and provide whatever support they need," he said.
It has been more than 60 years since these veterans served in the last world war, one which caused a worldwide mobilization of more than 100 million troops. The trip they took from Colorado to Washington D.C. to see these memorials not only brought back old memories, but also made new ones.
"I think this trip is great," said Krutsch. "It would've never been possible for me otherwise because of the cost and I am very thankful for the opportunity to be here," he said.
Upon arrival back at Denver International Airport main terminal, bagpipes could faintly be heard as the veterans boarded an elevator to meet back up with family members for the ride home.
The elevator doors slid open to reveal a crowd of approximately one hundred grateful American citizens clapping, holding signs stating "Thank you for your service!" Two men in Scottish kilts played hymns on bagpipes as miniature American flags were vigorously waved. It was as if the veterans had returned from the war that day ... and those 60 years had never gone by.
Once again, tears as well as smiles emerged as these veterans completed a three-day trip put together solely to honor them and their sacrifices.
It takes not only donations from various organizations, but dedicated people to make all this possible for the former service members. Although their organization may not be world famous, Rocky Mountain Honor Flight and its volunteers are now a top-notch memory for at least 35 veterans from WWII.
Note from the writer, Sgt. Michael Cost:
As a 25-year-old combat veteran, I am grateful to have been a "Guardian" on this trip. It was an honor to spend time with the veterans as they visited their memorials throughout Washington D.C. It was a very touching moment for me when these American war heroes viewed the monuments built in honor of their experiences. I hope every veteran of every war gets the opportunity to do such a trip as time passes and their war fades in their memories. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your great service to this nation.