From Wisconsin to Washington
It took a story to reunite the two old sailors. It was 67 years ago when Clarence Schraufnagel and Harold Soerens were young recruits in the Navy’s Great Lakes Boot Camp, learning the ropes and preparing to serve in World War II. The two shared an Honor Flight from Milwaukee to Washington D.C. – and then a bus ride to the Pentagon Memorial, which commemorates 9/11 victims. But they didn’t recognize each other until Harold launched into a tale about Clarence, only to realize he was standing nearby.
“Do you remember the fun we had?” Harold asked Clarence. They were just two of 198 veterans who made the trip, hosted by the Southeastern Wisconsin chapter of the national Honor Flight organization. The group has flown World War II veterans to Washington D.C. since 2008 to see the (relatively) new memorial and “become teenagers again” for a few days, according to Renee Riddle, spokeswoman for the chapter, which goes by the “Stars and Stripes” moniker.
Honor Flights have become more and more popular. By the end of 2009, almost 36,000 veterans from around the country had made the trip. In Southeastern Wisconsin, Stars and Stripes has flown about 1,000 veterans. There are 500 more on the waiting list. In Wisconsin and in other states, time is running out. The memorial opened to the public in 2004, years after the dedication of other memorials for wars (such as the Vietnam and Korean wars) fought by younger veterans. With 1,000 World War II veterans dying each day, Riddle says, “We’re up against the clock.”
On the flight that took off from General Mitchell International Airport on Sept. 19, veterans’ ages ranged from 81 to 94. Some veterans donned their old war uniforms, and many wore their hats, which were covered in pins and patches. Some relied on wheelchairs, canes or oxygen to make the trip. A team of doctors and nurses also made the journey. But Riddle says the veterans’ adrenaline kicks in and carries them through the trip.
Not long after dawn, as the 747 taxied out to the runway for takeoff, a fire truck hosed the plane in a ritualistic Water Cannon Salute. As the passenger jet lifted off, World War II era planes crossed above it. “You’re a humble generation, but let us spoil you today,” announced Joe Dean, Stars and Stripes president.
In Washington, a police escort accompanied the convoy of veterans to the World War II, Iwo Jima, Korean War, Vietnam War, Lincoln and Pentagon memorials. At the World War II memorial, the focus of the trip, strangers approached the veterans, thanked them and shook their hands. “It’s nice to be remembered,” said Army veteran Eugene Walker.
Fellow Army serviceman Edward Kiepert was at a loss for words. “Overwhelmed” was the only way he could describe his emotions.
On the flight home, each veteran received a large envelope full of letters from relatives, friends, church members and local officials. Colorful construction paper, bows and crayon-drawn airplanes flooded into their laps along with handwritten letters from daughters and sons. But a larger surprise waited for them at General Mitchell Airport. Almost 2,500 relatives, friends and supporters waited with signs welcoming the veterans home.
One veteran teared up to see his grandson waiting for him. One granddaughter said her grandfather was her “definite World War II hero.”
Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization, is funded solely by donations. The next Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, the chapter’s eighth and third with a chartered 747, departs Nov. 6.
For a closer look at the journey, visit the Honor Flight photo gallery.