By Brian Palmer
This Memorial Day holiday will always hold special meaning to me.
When I was growing up in Belleville, my father Kenneth Palmer would seldom talk about his service In the U.S. Navy in World War II. The few times he would mention it, it would be of an event or two that stuck in his mind from a time long ago, during the Pacific theater.
Being assigned to a wooden-hulled mine sweeper, the YMS 299, he saw action in Okinawa, the Philippines and then occupied Japan. During the battle of Okinawa, he happened to be on a cruiser due to sickness. Late one night, the cruiser was hit mid-ship by a Japanese kamikaze. In the ensuing chaos, Dad helped move the injured into the hastily set up triage area. It was during this event, that he decided that a planned medical career would not be in his future. He was 18 years old.
Dad’s older brother, Les, was a captain in the Army air force, flying B-17 flying fortress bombers over Germany, during this same time. Les was shot down on his 14th mission and was listed as missing in action for a several months, and then was found to be a German POW for nearly two years. In fact, it was during this time that Dad had to convince his parents to sign for him to join the war effort, as he was only 17 years old at the time.
After the war came to an end, Dad returned to Michigan and went to Albion College on the G.I. bill to work towards an education degree. In his junior year he decided to attend the University of Arizona in Tuscon. It was here that he met the love of his life, Elizabeth Porritt of Alto, MI, who happened to be working as a nurse at the local VA hospital. A short courtship ensued, and they were married on Easter Sunday in 1950.
Soon after, they settled in Belleville where they raised us five children: Vicki, Dan, Cynthia, myself, and Kim. Dad worked for 35 years in the Van Buren school system teaching math and algebra, and coaching sports, mainly basketball. He also served many years on the Belleville City council with a couple stints as Mayor Pro-Tem. Mom was the classic stay-at-home Mom and was always a huge supporter of Dad’s activities and a friend to all.
Their marriage lasted 64 years until Mom passed away, unexpectedly in July 2014. It was after her memorial service that I mentioned to Dad, about the Honor Flight I had heard about a few years earlier. This is a non-profit organization, whose mission is to get veterans back to Washington D.C. to see their memorials. The southern chapter of Honor Flight is based in Kalamazoo and is named Talons Out.
Dad seemed unsure on if he would like to make a trip like that, but we filled out the applications, knowing that it could take a while for donations to make a trip possible. It was in March that I received a call from Talons Out that a trip was being planned for April 25. I called Dad that day from where I live in Idaho, to see if he would like to do it. He agreed and we started planning. It would be a one-day trip, leaving Kalamazoo about 7:30 a.m. and returning about 8:30 p.m.
Any veteran is eligible for these trips, and of course, WWII veterans are the top priority. Of the over 15 million WWII veterans that served, only 900,000 are still living. As I told my dad, he is one of these 7%. Each veteran is allowed one guardian to travel with him and the only thing Honor Flight asks is for the guardian to make a minimum donation of $500 to the program.
The night before the flight, Talons Out hosted a “meet and greet” at the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo, where there are several vintage planes and exhibits about the Air Force. There would be 67 WWII veterans and 2 Korean War vets making the trip, on a chartered plane. During the meet and greet, the presenter had each of the branches of the military raise their hand to see who served where. Michigan’s Lieutenant Governor gave a short speech thanking these brave men and women for their service to their country. Soon after, we retired to a nearby hotel that graciously provided rooms at a deep discount to the veterans. The morning of the 25th came early as Dad and I were provided a shuttle to the airport by a local business about 5:30 a.m. The airport was bustling as wheelchairs were provided for any vet needing them and a reception, made up of current servicemen and women were lined up, saluting and welcoming the veterans to this special trip. A breakfast was provided both at the airport and on the plane by local businesses. As we taxied out of the gate, folks on the tarmac were waving and the plane received a wash down salute by the fire department.
When we landed in D.C. another entourage of armed forces was there to greet our veterans and a local chorale group of ladies were there singing patriotic numbers. We boarded four tour buses and headed to the National Mall area. Everywhere we drove we were accompanied by a police escort, so traffic would be of no consequence. Our first stop was the fairly recently built WWII memorial, with one side representing the Atlantic Theater and the other side, the Pacific Theater. Several battles and famous quotes were etched in stone in different areas. After experiencing that, Dad and I wheeled along the reflection pool to the steps of the Lincoln monument. We then wheeled along the Viet Nam memorial with its countless names and then over to the haunting statues that make up the Korean War memorial.
We then boarded the buses and headed to Arlington Cemetery to view the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the changing of the guard. To say this was a powerful moment to share with these veterans is a gross understatement. After this solemn ceremony, we headed to the Air Force memorial which contains three huge sweeping arcs sweeping into the sky. These were constructed after the terrorist attacks of 911 and are in the flight path of the plane flown into the west wall of the Pentagon. After viewing the Air Force memorial we shared a catered barbeque lunch, overlooking Arlington.
Our last stop was a viewing of the iconic Iwo Jima memorial. I would highly recommend a reading of Flags of our Fathers, to gain a true understanding of what this battle signified. After everyone had a chance to view this, we headed back to Ronald Reagan airport to return to Kalamazoo. On the flight back the veterans were treated to a surprise “mail call” that included cards from family and friends thanking them for their service. After landing in Kalamazoo we loaded onto school buses and left for the local high school where nearly 3,500 people were there to surprise and welcome back the veterans and thank them for their service.
In summary, I wondered if a one-day trip to the nation’s capital could be meaningful to either my Dad or I. I am happy to report not only that it was incredible, well organized and emotional, but provided a great platform to visit with my dad about some of his feelings and events surrounding his late teens and early 20’s serving in WWII.
No wonder these men and women are known as “The Greatest Generation.”
For more information about this program for veterans Google “Honor Flight” and/or “Talons Out” on the internet.