Twice a year, the South Willamette Valley Honor Flight program flies veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam to Washington, D.C. Honoring veterans in Benton, Lane, Lincoln and Linn counties, the local organization serves as one of several Honor Flight Network hubs around the United States.
A typical itinerary takes veterans to the Lincoln Memorial along with memorials for Vietnam, Korea and World War II. Visits to the Pentagon, Women’s Memorial and various memorials for branches of military service, as well as a viewing of the changing of the guard ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, complete the touring part of the experience.
An Honor Flight is an all-expense paid trip for the veterans who are chosen from among those who apply through their regional hub.
The story that follows will share the experience as told by my father, Lloyd Niemann, who served in the U.S. Merchant Marines and attended the U.S. Merchant Marines Academy at Kings Point, N.Y. This is his story, however, it is representative of the experience any veteran may have if they apply and are selected to go on an Honor Flight.
Our hope is to inspire others to take a similar unforgettable trip with the special veteran in their life.
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“Since I live in State College, Pennsylvania, I was part of the national Lone Eagle program. People from all over the United States were part of this Lone Eagle Honor Flight. Veterans select someone of their choice (referred to as ‘guardian’) to accompany and assist them during this event.
“My son, Eric, had informed me of the program and encouraged me to apply, which I did and surprisingly, I received a phone call approximately two weeks later offering the opportunity to participate. Eric flew here from Oregon to be my guardian.
“The Lone Eagle Honor Flight was a marvelous experience (June 12-14, 2023). Eric drove us to the Hilton Hotel near BWI Airport on June 12 arriving about 1 or 2 p.m. We were greeted at a table in the lobby and given a box lunch (more than we could eat), polo shirts for each of us (blue for veterans and red for guardians), lanyards with names, and red, white or blue ties that were the codes for which of three buses we were to board the next day for the tour.
“We then went to the hotel desk to check in — all that was needed was to tell our names and we were handed pre-named envelopes with our room keys and two tickets for complimentary drinks at the hotel bar.
“That evening, we all met in the dining room for a buffet dinner and a greeting by Bobbie Bradley, Honor Flight coordinator. Bobbie has coordinated a dozen or more of the Honor Flights and she said that so far, they have brought over 250,000 veterans on the Honor Flights.
“The program was started by two individuals who flew in privately with World War II veterans with whom they were acquainted to view the WWII Memorial. They realized that WWII veterans were aging (or passing away) and would not be able to visit the memorial of the war in which they fought. Four of us were WWII vets — the oldest was a 99-year-old WAVE who spent the war decoding Japanese messages while stationed in Bremerton, Washington. (That made me feel young.)
“In the morning, we had a buffet breakfast in the hotel and then boarded our respective buses. Buses had arrived late at the hotel and then rush hour traffic into D.C. required passing by our first intended memorial visit at the Pentagon. We arrived at Arlington National Cemetery — our buses were permitted to take us to the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in time to be in the front row to observe the changing of the guard ceremony — a very moving experience. After the ceremony, all members of our group were mustered for a group photo at the Memorial Amphitheatre.
“We were joined by tour guides in each bus that were extremely knowledgeable and informative all during the rest of our tour. The guide on our bus mentioned that her husband, who was on another bus, was a graduate of the U. S. Merchant Marine Academy Class of 1983. I informed them that I had graduated Class of 1949. We were able to get together to share common memories.
“Next stop was to visit the Marine Corps Iwo Jima Memorial. During our stop there, we were each provided a bag lunch.
“Just a note in this dialogue: wherever we stopped, wheelchairs were taken from under the bus for any of us who needed them. We were offered bottles of water or Gatorade whenever we departed the bus. Each bus had a first aid medic person on board. We were informed each time we departed the bus of the time and specific location to return.
“Several times, we were accompanied by park police that took us through the red traffic lights and cleared vehicles out of parking places for us at the memorials. Prior to COVID, they escorted the buses into town from the hotel or nearby and will possibly revisit that at some time in the future.
“We drove by the Eisenhower Memorial but could not stop due to time constraints.
“Next stop was the Disabled American Veterans Memorial. This has many quotes and visuals. Beautiful reflecting fountain.
“The Naval Memorial has a “view of the world” which shows a map with all the ocean expanses plus the Great Lakes depicted with all of the land masses shown. The granite that depicts the water — looks like water. One sculptor is a Navy Seaman wearing his peacoat and has his duffle bag by a cleat at his feet. Very realistic! The display includes a sizable number of naval scenes around the plaza. One of these does depict and recognizes the Merchant Marines.
“We then had a longer stop where we visited the World War II Memorial which I had particularly wished to visit. It extends across the Mall and can be observed from the Lincoln Memorial toward the Capitol. The Merchant Marine emblem is included at the base of each flagpole with all other service emblems.
“We found the Nebraska pillar — Eric was able to take a picture of a photo that we brought of Paul Doeden resting on that memorial. Paul Doeden was the uncle of my wife, Marilyn. He was killed in Normandy on June 13, 1944. The picture was taken 79 years later on June 13, 2023.
“The bus moved us down to the lower end of the Mall. We then walked through the area of the Korean War Memorial which includes the figures of a patrol in Korea — Marine Corps figures have chin straps buckled. Army figures have chin straps not buckled. (Maybe it is vice-versa).
“We walked to the Vietnam Memorial with its very moving Wall of Names. Our tour guides were there for us and made rubbings of names that people desired. They created rubbings of the names of three fallen soldiers for us — these fallen were citizens from Philomath, Oregon. Eric Intends to present the rubbings to their families when he returns home.
“We then walked to the Lincoln Memorial. This is always a moving visit. If he had not been our president, would our country have survived to be what it is today?
“After stops at the FDR and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials, the bus convoy headed back to Maryland and pulled in partway to an American Legion post where we were met by enthusiastic men and women who served us a buffet dinner.
“While at the dinner, Bobbie announced that she knew that what was always looked forward to when people were in the service was “mail call” and getting letters from home. She then proceeded to call out names and handing out packets of mail. I was shocked and moved that I received an envelope with more than a dozen letters of well wishes from family, friends and neighbors. What a surprise!
“We returned to the hotel. Many gathered at the bar and enjoyed our newfound friends.
“A buffet breakfast the next morning with additional camaraderie as people went their separate ways.
“Eric and I headed for home. He had found that the National Civil War Museum is located in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We stopped and spent two hours or so, quickly touring it. If you can, visit it! Allow lots of time — you could spend days!”
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Based on what you have read, if you are interested in applying for a veteran in your family this is what you need to know.
Veterans eligible to go with South Willamette Valley Honor Flight must live in Benton, Lane, Lincoln or Linn counties and served anytime, anywhere between Dec. 7,1941 and May 7, 1975.
The South Willamette Valley Honor Flight has two honor flights scheduled in 2024. There is a spring flight in May and a fall flight scheduled for October. You can apply or learn more about either of these at this link.
If your veteran lives outside the Willamette Valley, there most likely is an Honor Flight program local to them. They can find resources and information about these at this link.
The Honor Flight Network is composed of over 130 regional hubs across the United States. You can locate a regional hub near your veteran at this link.
There are national programs for veterans who are not located near a regional hub (Lone Eagle) or veterans diagnosed with a terminal illness. Contact the national office by phone at 937-521-2400, ext. 2, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Eric Niemann is a former mayor and city councilor in Philomath. He can be reached at Lifeinphilomath@gmail.com).