Iowa Public Television


Honor Flight Carries Heroes From Rural America

posted on May 28, 2010

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America will pause this weekend to honor its fallen heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. For some, Memorial Day, means little more than a three-day weekend and the unofficial start of summer.

But for members of the, so-called, "Greatest Generation..." who fought and won the most devastating war in history, Memorial Day stirs powerful emotions of pride, pain and patriotism.

Sadly, many World War II Veterans have not even seen THEIR memorial in Washington. But a five-year-old effort known as the "Honor Flight Network" has made that dream a reality for more than 42,000 veterans.

Producer Andrew Batt joined hundreds of vets from Iowa on their pilgrimage last fall and filed this report.

In the heart of Rural America, another harvest is in full swing. In Iowa, brothers Bruce and Burk Knoll are working round-the-clock to reap a bountiful crop that's been their family's meal ticket for more than 60 years. Both men learned long ago from their father that a life in agriculture was no easy task.

The family's patriarch, Ivan Knoll, knows a great deal about trying times. The eighty-five year old is part of an exclusive club whose members are disappearing at a rate of 1000 per day. The native Iowan, and World War II Navy veteran, actively practices the old adage that a farmer never truly retires.

Ivan Knoll, Adel, Iowa: "What's the yield out there?"

Bruce Knoll: "We got 220 to 225 yesterday."

Despite all the adulation and honors for men like Ivan, many of America's living WWII vets have never seen their memorial in Washington. But a patchwork of nationwide volunteers are racing against the clock to make their cross-country trip a reality.

It's 3 A.M. and hundreds of 80 to 90-year old men are processing through TSA security. As the yellow-clad veterans board a series of buses headed for a nearby airport, many know they have a long day ahead of them.

Hours before sunrise, the winding veteran caravan arrives at a nearby tarmac filled with hundreds of cheering families and a high school band. The endless stream of fathers, husbands, and Grandpas ascend the steps of a chartered 747 as the latest generation of U.S. Armed forces lend a helping hand.

The endless drumbeat of time has taken a toll on many of these men. More than one hundred volunteers and firefighters from local communities are on site to carry wheel-chair bound veterans from bus seats to airplane aisles.

Hours later, the fully-loaded 747 touches down in Washington D.C. and a fresh set of volunteers are on hand to de-plane veterans and send them on their way to the National Mall.

Vicky Vermaat, Central Iowa Honor Flight: ""It's great to see these folks get off the airplane and see the country is appreciative for their service."

The day is more than 10 hours long once 350 Midwestern vets arrive at the World War II Memorial.

Gov. Chet Culver, D-Iowa: "Thanks for your service. It's great to see you."

Politicians, families, and veterans from across the country pack the five-year old monument. Men and women of the European theater, the Pacific theater, D-Day, and Iwo Jima are overwhelmed with emotion.

Ivan Knoll, Adel, Iowa: "What does it mean? It's kind of hard to describe. I really appreciate the fact that we have this opportunity. We've been wished well many times."

Romaine Kischer, Albert City: "The people that come out to meet us and smile at us and shake our hands. That's the whole thing. It's just heart-raising."

Romaine Kischer, a U.S. Naval veteran during the war, immediately thought of his friends who never made it home.

Romaine Kischer, Albert City: "It kind of takes you back a little bit to the time of the war. I lost a lot of my shipmates back then and now they're long gone."

Kischer, like fellow veteran Ivan Knoll, was a lifelong farmer whose work ethic was honed in the largest war in history.

Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, nearly 2 million came from rural communities, small towns, and farms.

After Germany fell and Japan surrendered, the tools of war were largely placed in storage and the industrial engine of America turned towards peacetime prosperity. Farmers came home to a Rural America transformed by tractors, multi-row planters, and hybrid seed. Veterans that stayed in agriculture in the coming decades would oversee the greatest escalation of food production in human history.

Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: "They made extraordinary sacrifices to allow us to have the country we have today. They survived the Depression, they fought a war, they built the strongest economy in the world. It's appropriate for us to say in a very small way: Thank You."

That 21st century thank you comes with the full support of thousands. The flight Market to Market joined in November 2009 was just one of hundreds chartered across the country – part of the Honor Flight Network originally founded by an Ohio doctor. Veterans flying on the Central Iowa Honor Flights were flown free of charge thanks to corporate donations from the Midwestern grocery store Hy-Vee and the Iowa gas station chain Casey's. Volunteers on each flight pay for their own seats and help veterans every step of the way.

Vicky Vermaat, Central Iowa Honor Flight: "The ironic part is all day long they say thank you to us for taking care of them. And we're saying thank you to them. We are spending one day for them in exchange for a lifetime of freedom."

The nation's World War II memorial in D.C. is just one stop on the whirlwind trip for these seniors. The 350 veterans descend on the Korean War memorial, the Vietnam memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, and Iwo Jima.

Bill Bruner, Eldora, Iowa: "I was on a destroyer off the island and I looked up there and said Hey look at this."

Stationed on a naval destroyer near Iwo Jima 64 years ago, Navy veteran Bill Bruner remembers seeing a flag on that distant rock like it was yesterday.

Bill Bruner, Eldora, Iowa: "We didn't really know what was going on except my God there were those Marines that had been slaughtered a couple days before, were up there and victory! We were thrilled to pieces."

More than 400,000 American servicemen lost their lives in World War II. In the coming decade, most of the greatest generation will likely pass on as well - many content with their service to America.

Romaine Kischer, Albert City: "It was worth it all I guess. It's worth fighting for our country. It's a great country. America is a great country."

Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: "They don't think of themselves as heroes. They just think they responded to their nation's call but some us, we know better. It's just exciting to see. It's very emotional."

The 24-hour adventure to Washington D.C. conjures long-held memories to the forefront for many veterans. By the time the chartered 747 lands back in Iowa it's almost midnight – a nonstop day that tires men and women a fraction of the veterans' ages.

Back in the Iowa cornfields, some of the sons and daughters of America's Greatest Generation still call Rural America home. Romaine Kischer and Ivan Knoll, both farmers for more than a half-century, are the lucky ones. Their family business was handed down to their children.

Ivan Knoll, Adel, Iowa: "They way things have turned out the boys have been quite successful and it's working out quite well."

It's a tradition that brings solace to the remaining members of an exclusive group that saved the world generations ago.

For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.

Tags: airplanes memorials military news rural veterans war World War II