WASHINGTON, D.C. — Kristine Barton, her mother and her aunt came to the National World War II Memorial on Tuesday with a strong interest in military history.
After a chance encounter with Hank Trutna of Wahoo, a World War II Army veteran who served in a transport company, they left with traces of tears on their cheeks.
Trutna simply shared a few memories of his time in the war, which included landing on Utah Beach four days after the Allied invasion. But for the women, it was a genuine moment with a man who made a heroic sacrifice for his country.
Holly Ostergard of Lincoln and three friends woke up early Tuesday — about 3:30 a.m. — to see off the veterans about to board the Heartland Honor Flight, even though they’re not related to any of the men.
“We wanted to support them and tell them how much we appreciate them,” Ostergard said.
While the vets were on their trip, their spouses also were treated. After a luncheon and tour at the Governor’s Mansion, various groups of spouses toured the Capitol, Wyuka Cemetery and the International Quilt Study Center & Museum. A pizza party was planned Tuesday evening at the Hampton Inn, followed by a bus ride back to the airport to greet the Honor Flight honorees.
“It’s just wonderful hearing these stories,” said Barton of Arlington, Va. “It’s important for us to say thank you.”
Trutna smiled as they gave him hugs and said, “Thank you for caring.”
On Tuesday, 117 World War II veterans from Nebraska got to tour the memorial a grateful nation built in their honor. Many veterans on the Heartland Honor Flight struggled to describe what seeing the memorial meant to them.
“It’s wonderful. I never thought I’d get to see it,” said Harold Ullsperger, 82, of Lincoln, a Navy veteran who served in the Pacific Theater. “So it means everything in the world.”
The trip ended on a sad note when a 91-year-old Lincoln Army veteran died about 20 minutes before the plane landed, according to flight organizer Bill Williams of Omaha. One of the flight’s physicians attended to the man and paramedics were waiting when the plane touched down, but to no avail, Williams said.
The cause of his death was not immediately known, but he was the first veteran to die out of about 5,000 who’ve participated nationally in Honor Flights since 2005, Williams said.
Most of the other veterans were unaware of the death and they walked off the plane to cheers from waiting friends, relatives and admirers. The Lincoln Continentals, a singing group, serenaded them with patriotic songs.
The Nebraska veterans — 116 men and one woman, ranging in age from 80 to 93 — endured a hot, steamy day to see the World War II Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the Korean War Memorial. Because of the heat, they spent significant time on air-conditioned buses touring the many sights in the nation’s capital.
The roughly $83,000 cost of Tuesday’s flight, and the first one that took place in May, was paid for entirely by private donations. The veterans pay nothing to be on the planes and accompanying ground transportation.
Although organizers think they have raised enough money for several more flights, they say they don’t yet have enough for the full waiting list of 800 to 1,000 veterans who want to go. They’re planning a third flight in September, Williams said.
Organizers had planned to send 120 veterans on Tuesday’s trip, but one had to remain behind because of a last-minute illness and two others failed to show up, Williams said.
About 30 volunteers, including two doctors, paid their way on the flight to help escort the veterans.
The Nebraska group arrived at the Lincoln Airport at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday and was met by greeters waving flags, cheering and clapping.
“I really didn’t expect that,” said Jerry Weber, 83, of Holdrege, who served on a Navy troop transport.
Organizers were a little disappointed in the time it took to get the veterans through security. But most of the veterans took it in stride.
“I guess they’ve got to do their safety thing, but we blew up everything we wanted to 60 years ago,” joked Willis Becker, 85, of Raymond, a Navy pilot who trained others how to fly torpedo missions.
When the Honor Flight arrived at Dulles International Airport, another welcoming crew was waiting on the tarmac. Some of the veterans wiped tears from their eyes as they walked past applauding people and fluttering flags.
Visiting the $174 million memorial proved to be the highlight of the day. Many posed for pictures with Nebraska’s U.S. Sens. Ben Nelson and Chuck Hagel and heard a word of thanks from First District Congressman Jeff Fortenberry. Former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, a huge supporter of the memorial who likes to greet all veterans groups, could not attend because he was at the funeral of former Sen. Jesse Helms.
The Honor Flight provided the Nebraskans with a way to see the memorial they otherwise would not have had, in part because it was completed just four years ago. Some couldn’t afford to make the trip. Others couldn’t make it without physical assistance, which was clear from the roughly two dozen wheelchairs in use during the day.
“I think it’s great,” said Ellis “Jake” Jacobs, a retired rancher from Mullen and former paratrooper with the Army’s 507th Infantry Regiment. “I wasn’t going to make it any other way.”
Ezra Rosenthal, 89, of Fairbury served with the Army’s 1st Special Forces and 474th Infantry in Africa, Italy, France, Belgium and Germany. He stood with his back to a granite wall of the memorial and looked out across the central fountains and pool, trying to sort through his feelings about his memorial.
“It’s wonderful,” he said. “At times I look at all of this and think about all the poor and hungry people in the world; why don’t we feed them? But it’s so beautiful. I guess I’ve got so many thoughts about it.”
Reach Joe Duggan at 473-7239 or email@example.com.