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Tears, memories mark Honor Flight for local veterans

Cloquet veterans (from left) Jim Burman, Beatrice Yanda, Neal Burggraff, Gordy Caza and Lorraine Larson pause for a photo before departing for Washington, D.C., as part of the Honor Flight Northland last Saturday to visit the World War II Memorial and other well-known sights. Contributed Photo

One by one they filed onto the bus - the paratrooper, the crane operator, the Army nurse, the Pearl Harbor soldier and the Women's Army Corps member who trained pilots to fly by celestial navigation. They were the veterans, the survivors, the men and women who played integral roles in defending their homeland during World War II. And now, at long last, it was their time. 

Nick Burggraff, Jim Burman, Beatrice Yanda, Gordy Caza and Lorraine Larson, all of Carlton County, were among the 103 area veterans who were honored guests on the first-ever Honor Flight Northland expedition to the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, last Saturday. 

"It was quite a trip," reflected Burggraff, who served as a paratrooper with the 11th Airborne Division of the U.S. Army in Japan and the Philippines in 1945-46.  "It made me proud to be an American. I cried." 

Yanda, a former Army nurse who served in England from 1943-1946, was one of only three women in the group last Saturday.

"It was absolutely marvelous - and a long time in coming," she said. "I just wish it could have happened sooner so more people could have seen it."

With World War II veterans now reaching an average age of 87 and dying at the rate of 800-1,000 daily, what Yanda was sensing was that for many, this would likely be the only opportunity to witness the impressive memorial erected in honor of the veterans who served during the war. For some, it was already too late.

"My dad was a Navy gunner on a destroyer escort in the South Pacific," related Dave Johanson of Cloquet, one of 40 volunteers who served as guardians on the Honor Flight. "He and my mom had been contributing to the World War II Memorial for years, but he died in 2008 before ever seeing it."

Johanson said he brought a photo of his father to the Memorial with him, a simple gesture that made him feel as though his father had in some way made it there at last.

Burman, a U.S. Army crane operator who helped load ships in the Philippines and Okinawa toward the end of the war, talked of the "Field of Stars" on the Memorial's Freedom Wall, each of which represents 100 veterans who lost their lives during World War II. His brother, who perished in the bombing of Pearl Harbor, was one of them.

The stories behind the veterans who took part in that special day were many and varied and rich with history.

Larson joined the Women's Air Corps in 1944, when she was 20, and was sent to the airfield at Victoria, Kan., where B29s flew in with full crews prior to heading out for the South Pacific. 

"All our mechanics would go over each of the aircraft and make sure that it was perfect and ready to go," related Larson. "My role was working as a celestial navigation trainer operator."

She explained that a pilot would go into a training simulator located in a silo on the ground to "fly" a mission. Above the cockpit was a mesh dome with all of the stars and constellations illuminated on it, and she would run the simulated missions with them to make certain they were flying in the right direction.

"That was the only way to navigate until radar was invented toward the end of the war," Larson explained.

Caza, one of the only remaining survivors of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, enlisted in the U.S. Army when he was just 17. Since he had an uncle in Hawaii at the time, he told the recruiter that was where he wanted to go. After being sworn in at Fort Snelling, he was shipped to California and then on to Hawaii, where he was assigned to a truck company. That was in September 1941, just three months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Caza was stationed at Fort Armstrong, a small Army fort in downtown Honolulu, about five miles from Pearl Harbor.

On Sunday morning, Dec. 7, he said he was just getting back from breakfast when the alert went off. Thinking it was probably a part of routine maneuvers, he and his fellow soldiers went through the motions of getting rifles and ammunition from the supply sergeant and heading for the parade grounds without any overriding sense of alarm.

It was then two Japanese planes flew right over the base's parade grounds, strafing the grounds and barracks repeatedly. Caza and his comrades took shelter beneath the trucks and he said they could see all kinds of smoke in the direction of Pearl Harbor and hear bombs being dropped. Later, they were able to witness the stark devastation in the harbor. 

Last Saturday, however, they were simply a group of comrades with a common mission - to visit the tribute erected in honor of them and others like them who served during the Second World War.

The day started well before dawn at the Duluth Airport. 

"I was told to arrive around 4:15 a.m. to help set up the registration table before the veterans began to show up between 4:30 and 5 a.m.," related Johanson. "Just for good measure, I decided to get there at 4 a.m., and as soon as I got to the table, some of the veterans had already started to arrive."

As one of the official guardians for the trip, Johanson helped out with many duties, but his primary charge was to assist and accompany a group of three of the veterans throughout the day of the trip - Burggraff, Burman, and a veteran by the name of Wesley Johnson from Chisholm. 

Burggraff said he volunteered for the job because he's always had an interest in military history, particularly veterans. His duties began long before the day of the flight, however, as he met with the veterans and also helped assemble a packet of letters of well wishes for each of them written by family members and area school children as part of the special "mail call" held during the flight similar to the familiar routine of soldiers everywhere. 

"That really kind of struck me," admitted Burggraff. "I can recall how mail call was always a special part of the day when I was in the service, but sometimes there was no mail for days. It really brought those kinds of things back to me."

Last Saturday, however, everyone got mail - even "hand flags" bearing the slogan, "Land of the free because of the brave," made by the preschool children at Cloquet's Garfield Community Center, a project spearheaded by Johanson's wife and her fellow instructor Patrice Langenbrunner.  

Of the 104 veterans who had signed up for the flight, 103 ended up making the journey, with only one having to bow out at the last minute due to illness. Thanks to the efforts of a dedicated group of organizers led by Judy Greske, as well as legions of volunteers and donors, the $600 per person round-trip expense of the trip was completely covered for each veteran who went on the flight. 

"They were treated like kings and queens," said Johanson, adding the Red Cross served doughnuts and coffee at the airport, then they were served breakfast and dinner aboard the aircraft and presented with special backpacks filled with snacks, hand sanitizer, and a host of other incidentals to carry with them on the trip.

The flight departed Duluth around 6:30 a.m., arriving at Reagan Airport in Washington, D.C. around 10 a.m. One of eight Honor Flights from around the country to arrive at the nation's Capitol that Saturday, the Northland contingent was especially touched by the warm - and unexpected - greeting they received. 

"At the airport there was this welcome that you wouldn't believe," said Johanson. "It included bands, volunteers and military personnel who were there thanking the veterans for what they've done. It was like running the gauntlet, with people stacked up two and three deep for probably a good hundred yards. That might have been the most overwhelming part of the whole experience."

"I was just amazed at the people," agreed Yanda. "There were hundreds of people there at the airport to greet us."

Burggraff said a small girl who was barely able to walk yet toddled up to him and handed him a flower.

"People were waving and clapping," added Burman. "It was out of this world. It brought tears to my eyes."

The Honor Flight members were transported by bus to the World War II Memorial, where they spent about an hour and a half taking in the landmark, with all of its massive columns dedicated to the states and the various theaters of the war and the poignant Field of Stars in remembrance of those who lost their lives.

"It was beautiful," commented Burggraff. "I lost a couple of buddies in World War II who didn't make it back...."

After being treated to lunch at the Women's Memorial building, the Honor Flight group and their escorts were taken by bus to see the other sights of the area, including stops at the Iwo Jima, Korean and Vietnam War memorials and drive-bys of the Washington Monument, the White House, Pennsylvania Avenue and the houses of Congress.

The flight back home was considerably quieter, since the day had grown long by then, but there was one more surprise in store for the veterans before their night was over. When they arrived at the Duluth Airport around 10 p.m. and departed the plane, Larson said there was a long line of service personnel in uniform with flags lining the hallway, and as they descended the stairs to the airport's main level, they were greeted by hundreds of people who cheered, waved signs and shook their hands.

"It was just beautiful," she sighed.

Among those in the crowd were Cloquet's Kevin and Gail Hamre, along with their exchange student Jonathan, who were there to welcome Gail's father, an honored veteran on the flight. They held aloft a heavy wool American flag dating back to 1896 - when it only had 45 stars on it - that Gail's great-grandfather used to hang from his house on July Fourth as an expression of freedom.

All who made the trip agreed that it was the experience of a lifetime, never to be forgotten. And for many, it brought back a host of memories.

"It's been so many years...." mused Burggraff, "but now it's all coming back."

He added he wishes there was some way to thank all of those who worked so long and hard on making the trip possible.

"I think every veteran should be able to go to [the Memorial]," he said. "It's really something to see."