A whirlwind day for Korean veteran Gene Gates, Pierre, began at 4:30 a.m., when he and 81 other veterans boarded the Honor Flight plane, May 4, in Sioux Falls.
Honor Flights, this one being the 700th in the nation, are conducted by non-profit organizations wanting to transport to Washington, D.C., as many United States military World War II and Korean veterans as possible to see the memorials of the respective wars they fought in. Each veteran takes the trip for free, and each has a ‘guardian,’ a friend or relative who comes along to offer companionship and any needed physical aid.
Gates and his guardian, friend John Nickolas (himself a Vietnam vet), have both seen the military memorials before, but for Gates this time was different. His first trip was when the Korean Memorial was new. “That first year I was with my family. My wife is deceased now,” Gates said. Though, “there was no one I knew who got killed over there,” Gates still was in awe when he sat in front of the ‘ghost wall’ of the memorial. Gates had spent 16 months (a ‘normal’ tour) in Korea, 1954-1955.
Even before they departed the plane, the day was made special. A water cannon salute cascaded over the landed plane. South Dakota’s senators Mike Rounds and John Thune met them. Only in South Dakota could someone like Nickolas say of Rounds, “we lived across the street when we were in high school.” Representative Dusty Johnson was there when the veterans left to return home. “Always good for those kids to know you,” said Nickolas remembering Johnson when Johnson was in high school.
The two say that there were hundreds of people honoring the veterans, ‘big crowd.” Gates added, “The best was the way they treated us over all, with great respect. The made you feel welcome.” Returning from Korea as a corporal (and a paratrooper), Gates was treated as a top general, with all the veterans having a full official escort of two motorcycles in front, all intersections made ready for them to go non-stop all day, and a car following. This helped them have time to visit seven memorials: Iwo Jima, Air Force, Naval, WW II, Korean, and Vietnam. At Arlington Cemetery, they witnessed the changing of the guard and the wreath-laying ceremonies.
Gates appreciated the three brown-bag meals, because they were good and quick — though not fast food — so he could see everything during the quick day.
“Though they didn’t talk about it, there was a lot of camaraderie. You could see it. They were watching each other, like comrades back together again,” said Nickolas.
Only afterward, said Gates, was the day long, with the plane scheduled to be back around 8:30 p.m. The majority of the veterans on this Honor Flight were from South Dakota, and almost all of them were Korean vets.
The Honor Flight, the memorials, the crowds, all of it was actually secondary, according to Nicholas, who said he went as a guardian on the flight “for the veterans. That is what this is all about. They are the mainstay.”