On Nov. 3, 2012, James Algiers, MD ’53, GME ’63, participated in an Honor Flight from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C., in recognition of his service in World War II. The following are his impressions in his own words.
“On Nov. 3, I was privileged to be a guest of the Honor Flight and to travel with my son, also a Naval Veteran, to the Memorial of WWII. The trip on Nov. 3 was remarkable in content, in organization, and most impressively in participation of, yes, thousands of interested men, women, and children, who stood in greeting to us at Mitchell Field and Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. The flight originated at Mitchell Field at 5 a.m. with registration, pictures, and IDs for the day. Think of 200 hundred old men in all states of health, each with an associate, a “Guardian” for the day; veterans in blue jackets and gray hair; guardians in red jackets, some young men or women, some middle aged, but all most attentive to the very elderly veterans. Simple arithmetic places those veterans in the mid-80s to mid-90s in age, not so simple an observation places the old Veterans in a mode of attention and appreciation and for a time to again recall, and think of the years gone by, of the friends of yesteryear, of the events associated with the years between 1941 and 1946; when “all were young”; to recall those who were never privileged to grow old and be able to recall.
After checking in—the registration was painless—entertainment by singing groups in the concourse helped pass the time until the flight took off. It was impressive to see alert men in their 80s and 90s, all aware of the opportunity of this late life event. There was no sleeping, no confusion or inattention; all were alert, oriented and aware. For that moment, all were young again, and were somewhat anxious and troubled to find that “hurry up and wait” was still the order of the day, seventy some years after the fact.
“Finally, the flight took off for Washington, D.C. Two planes, each with 100 veterans and 100 guardians, flew to Washington in about one hour and thirty minutes; many recalled railroad trips in the forties across the country which were measured in days, sometimes weeks.
"Introductions were made and conversations began, revealed years of events, lives so varied, and memories again stimulated by mutually shared remarks. All became aware that there were heroes among us, but most were of a common trend, just guys who were caught up in the events of the 40s, just lived out their lives fashioned by the “luck of the draw.” Again noted was the fact that heroes were not “made” but just happened, again by the “luck of the draw”. Mature judgment of the “old veterans” concluded that competition for stories could not compete with awareness of our present longevity, which is a God-given benefit, and for all of us, this flight was a benefit organized by remarkable people. The day was designed as a rewards program to the group, all of whom were humbled by the experience.
“The trip was fast, comfortable, and well-organized. We arrived at Dulles International on time, were disembarked onto a people mover and transported to the receiving area. There, amazingly we were met with at least 1,000 men, women and children from the Washington area. They lined the halls, greeted us with smiles and extended handshakes, always thanking each and every veteran for his or her service.
“The repetition of this greeting was embarrassing, initially, until one realized the greeting was truly sincere. Small boys and bright little 4- and 5-year-old girls smiled and greeted us, individually, repetitiously, and with true sincerity. Boy Scouts, youth groups, fathers and mothers, widows and widowers all thanked us and wished us well. We were initially embarrassed but soon maturely accepted the greeting and returned the thankful greeting. A politician’s rush was experienced by the handshaking and recognition. The reception was unexpected, but gratifying.
“From there we entered the buses, and our Washington excursion began. The weather was chilly, the day overcast. All initial activities were on the Mall of Washington. All was confined to the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial; the initial memorial visited was the Memorial of the 2nd World War, our connection to the past. It is the newest and recognized as the Jewel of the Mall. This memorial was long in making, but finally was completed and is a fitting memorial to the 15 million service men and women who served in World War II.
"We spent some time walking about, looking and appreciating our private thoughts. Group pictures were taken, quiet private conversations with the Guardians were revealing of many unspoken thoughts of the past. The Memorial will serve generations into the future and hopefully will be instrumental in some future war prevention activities.
“Following the World War II Memorial, we spent minutes to hours at the Korean Memorial, the hallowed memorial to the “police action” of the early fifties. This memorial was spiritually spooky. The setting is on a downslope, about two acres of low hedges, green in nature; interspersed are gray, slate gray figures of soldiers walking through the bushes, with rifle, bazookas and other arms.
“Each soldier is clothed in a slate gray poncho from head to ankles. Each is attentive and sad, is observant, cautious and fearful. Alongside the field is an eight-foot granite wall with etchings of the countenances of soldiers who had served in Korea. Pictures had been recorded and sketches of soldier’s faces are now etched in perpetuity on the granite wall. Rumor has it that soldiers who had served in Korea had located their pictures in the etchings. The atmosphere of this Memorial was haunting and on that cold November day shivers running up and down our backs were noted. Haunting, chilling, somber, and sad were the moments at the Korean site.
“The sadness was prolonged this day when the Vietnam Memorial was revisited. That hallowed walkway of 57,000 names etched in walls of shiny granite, serving as a walkway for women, children, and now what might have been grandchildren of all those victims of such foolish actions of our leaders, such a time of slaughter and degradation of fine young men; a time of death, a time of mashing and smashing of our youth with no sense or reason for such violence and no hope of retrieval of lost bodies and souls in the stagnate deltas of southeast Asia. I was reminded of one of my patients who had been a lost soul until one Saturday afternoon; he rid himself of his Vietnam horrors by reliving the details that he had made into the jungles of torture.
We next visited the National Cemetery where hundreds of thousands of service men and women now lie alongside Jack Kennedy’s Perpetual Flame. There we viewed the Changing of the Guard.
“Then a bus tour of the area, boarding of the return plane, somber thoughts and quiet talk and finally takeoff for a flight of an hour and one half, interrupted by “Mail Call,” an unexpected treat during which we received letters from our wife, children, friends and neighbors. What a wonderful send off from the memories of Washington. The plane was quiet; the backs of hands of the veterans were moist with tears, from thoughts of what had been, and from recall of times when family should have been allowed a closer insight into past lives and experiences.
“What a day, what a privilege to again be young of heart, but old of limb. The older one gets the more appreciative of a “pat on the back.” And to think that the best was yet to come. On arrival at Mitchell Field, there to be met by four or five thousand folks, by family, friends, and just plain people who took time from a Saturday night to come down and see a cadre of old men who had by the “Luck of the Draw” served, survived, and been fortunate to live in this country, the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
“What an honor to have loved, to have served, and now to experience outpouring of that love and an honored thank you.”