Some 70 years ago, an untoward event occurred that changed the future for most Americans, some of us forever.
When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, we reacted almost overnight. Although we were intense rivals in our business world, athletics, in all competitive activities, and so diverse in race and religion, we came together with one purpose in mind -- win the war. All of us young fellows "were champing at the bit" to get at the enemy. Eventually, I believe, 17 million served in the armed forces.
The years passed, and we veterans didn't give much thought to our service time and did not expect any special recognition. Why should we? We only did our share to help win the war and protect our freedom.
We could not have won without the home front going all out to produce the airplanes, tanks, munitions, food, clothing and all the products we needed to win. The total effort was so successful it prompted Adm. Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese navy to say, "We have to defeat America in six months or we will lose the war." Well, we proved him right; they lost the war.
Certainly in 1941, none of us who served in the military were visualizing happily flying in a jet airplane from Garden City to tour Washington in 2011. So now we were skeptical when we heard about the Honor Flights, thinking so many years after the fact, it would be too costly. But, as we all know now, it wasn't fantasy. There were folks seriously working at establishing a program and schedule.
We were pleased to be informed that our good friends Bill and Ruth Moriarity and John and Twila Logsdon would be traveling with us. The schedule called for us to be in Garden City by 5:30 p.m. April 24 for a banquet in the veterans' honor. It was an ideal time to start getting acquainted with new friends.
We were out of bed by 3:30 a.m. Monday morning so we could have breakfast and pass through security to board the plane. Securing 172 passengers is quite time-consuming, so we did not lift off until 8:45 a.m. It took two and a half hours to reach the nation's capital.
The tours in Washington were well-organized. Wheelchairs were available for those who needed them. The attendants, who had traveled with us, furnished the power for the wheelchairs, but at times Darlene or Bill pushed me.
We were kept quite busy during the two days we toured the capitol. We visited the WWII, Vietnam and Korean War Memorials. The WWII Memorial is a huge, circular structure with a pillar named after each state.
We went to Arlington Cemetery. I would not attempt to say how many are buried there. It seems the rows of crosses are endless. While at Arlington, we observed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is gratifying to see how dedicated these young men are in performing their guard duties. I think it is fitting we continue the guard presence for the unfortunate soldier without any identification who died serving his country.
We spent the night in the 4-H National building. We were pleased to see our youth had clean, comfortable quarters to stay in while in Washington. During our tours, our meals came in tasty box lunches. We had bottled drinking water available at all times; it was said that illnesses that occurred in the past were the result of not drinking enough water. Could be.
We weren't up as early in Washington, had breakfast around 6:30 a.m. and boarded the bus for the Holocaust Museum. I had a particular interest in this because when the war was winding down, the concentration camp at Dachau was in our part of the front. My company was able to take time to go through the camp and see for ourselves what was happening there.
One could hardly believe how inhumane some humans were to others. I never will forget the lampshades made of human skin that a woman on the staff had made for her living quarters. We never heard but we all hoped she got the punishment she deserved.
The museum in Washington does real well in showing what happened, although they do not show the most gruesome details. Everyone who has a chance should tour this museum.
For our last tour, we were taken to Fort McHenry, site of a battle in the War of 1812. This battle also was what prompted Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem. After several days of bombardment, the occupants of the fort fought so tenaciously the warships withdrew, breaking off the battle. I don't know if they restored the fort to its original features, but it appeared like it must have existed back then.
The forgoing military action brought back memories. At the fort, I met a guy who had served on the Anzio Beachhead. We compared the Fort McHenry battle to the battle when the Germans tried so desperately to push us back into the ocean. The fighting went on for three days when the Germans must have realized we were not going to give an inch. Their losses were horrible. Even those of us who had been in combat for a year were sickened by their casualties.
I also was fortunate to meet an infantryman from the Big Red One Division. Ours had served together in Tunisia, and we were able to recall what all took place in the fighting there. That was one of the highlights of the trip -- meeting guys who had served in the same areas and even some battles together.
The weather had been perfect, but it rained at the fort, and we got wet. From the fort we drove to the airport and prepared for departure. The security moved along much faster here so we were only about an hour late lifting off.
During the flight, an attendant called out "Mail Call." What, I thought? Mail call at 35,000 feet? Someone is mistaken! This high up? Most of the time they couldn't even deliver our mail in the mountains of Italy at 5,000 or 6,000 feet. But yes, they handed out mail with me receiving no less than 43 pieces. I'm not sure how they managed it, but friends had written wishing us a fun time and pleasant trip.
When we off-loaded at Garden City, I believe I was the first one off. I couldn't believe the greeting we received. There must have been 400 people welcoming us back. On top of that, we received a police and about a 30-motorcycle escort back to our motel.
This trip was one of the most pleasurable highlights of my life. One feature I detected early was that the guys still had that desire to protect and help each other. It is something we never will lose.
If I didn't have so much trouble with the English language, perhaps I could describe better my feelings about the trip. Of course there was a sad moment when at the WWII memorial I wished my best friend, Clyde Milton, could be enjoying it with me. I would have wished the same for my many friends who didn't come home.
I believe the trip was a good demonstration of our togetherness -- from all walks of life, various races, and diverse faiths -- in a small way to those who challenge our freedom we stand ready to take up arms again to defend our Constitution and our rights.
We never can repay those who made the trip possible; the group leaders who worked so hard to assure we kept on schedule so we wouldn't miss anything. Also a big thank you to the folks in the capital and the bus drivers who were so courteous and kind who drove out of the way to show us features that were not on our program.
My last thought when we scattered at Garden City for each to go his own way and I recalled seeing all the bald heads, wheelchairs, canes and crutches, "Is this the group that beat the Germans and Japanese?" I was consoled by the fact they probably look just as bad as we do.
The trip really was complete because my soulmate and I could enjoy it together.
Carl Schlegel lives in Hays with his wife, Darlene. They both grew up in Otis. He worked 40 years for the Bureau of Mines managing a helium plant; Darlene worked as a nurse at Cimarron Memorial hospital. They moved to Hays after retirement to live with "Unser Leute" and say they are happy to be back "home" again.