The Day A Bunch Of 80-Year-Olds Wore Me Out

I hate 4:00 a.m.

As a nightside reporter whose work isn’t typically on display until sometime after 10:00 p.m., I regularly stay awake after my shift until 1:00 or even 2:00 a.m.  Not 4:00.

It is the hour of farmers, insomniacs, and college kids with a strong tolerance for hangovers.  As I am none of these things, I can’t imagine anything good happening to me at that hour.

I started a damn good day recently at 4:00 a.m.

THE MISSION

Walking into my boss’s office two months ago, I wasn’t quite sure what the powers that be needed me for.  Our most recent February sweeps period was freshly finished and there wasn’t anything major on the horizon I could think of.  It crossed my mind I might even be in trouble.

The station, it turned out, wanted me to go on an Honor Flight.  If you’re not familiar, the Honor Flight is a program that allows World War II veterans to fly to Washington, D.C., to see the memorial built in their honor.  This one involved 29 Kansas City-area veterans.  It is an exhilarating, exhausting one-day trip.

Also assigned to the trip was Taka Yokoyama, the accomplished photojournalist paired with me for 31 hours straight on the night of the Joplin Tornado.

The idea to simply attend an Honor Flight evolved into raising money for the organization.  The idea to simply raise money for the organization evolved into a new goal.

Pay for the next Honor Flight.

THE SEND OFF

KCI Airport is something of a desert at 4:00 a.m.

Airlines schedule very few flights so early and very few people book reservations on those flights.

Honor Flight organizers actually asked everyone on our trip to arrive by 4:30 to get through security, but Taka and I wanted to get to the airport in time to see all of the veterans arriving.  About half still beat us there.

4:30 a.m. at KCI Airport

As Taka and I interviewed one vet waiting to take off, we spotted a man in fatigues shaking hands with another.  Lt. Col. Howard Schauer of the Army National Guard was also flying to D.C.  The man currently in charge of helping the people of Afghanistan develop sustainable agriculture wanted to voice his gratitude.

“I wanted to thank you for the road that you gentlemen paved for me,” said Lt. Col. Schauer.  “I’m walking in your footsteps.”

Army National Guard Lt. Col. Howard Schauer thanks former Army Tech 5 Bill Chick for his service.

With an 18-hour day ahead of us, Taka and I began to wonder how 80 and 90-year-olds would hold up for the entire trip.  George Todd, a nose gunner who flew 18 missions over Italy for the United States Army Air Force, probably put it best.

“We won’t need any lullabies sung to us when we get home.”

THE PROMISE

On both the flight to D.C. and the flight home, I sat next to the doctor accompanying our Honor Flight.

In between unsuccessful bouts of trying to stay awake on the plane that morning, I watched Dr. Mark Martin flip through the prescription medications of each veteran.  Taking care of 29 men and women all at least in their mid-80’s is no small task, but this is the sixth time Dr. Martin has accepted such pressure.

He’s the one who knows each veteran’s lengthy medical history, but also understands the biggest danger of the day is a fall.  He’ll be the first to reach over and open veterans’ water bottles time and again because he knows at this age, the spot most of us rely on for such a task between the thumb and index finger is now only bone, tendons, and sensitive nerves.

“I can promise you two things,” said Dr. Martin.  “At some point on this trip, every person laughs and every person cries.”

THE WWII MEMORIAL

I’ll admit I had a preconceived notion about the World War II Memorial.  The nature of the trip had me fully convinced the latter half of Dr. Martin’s promise would happen here for the majority of the veterans.

For the most part, I witnessed the former.

Army Air Force veteran Don Sole (left) and Marine Larry Booker (right) smile in front of the Kansas tower at the World War II Memorial.

Many of the men walked around smiling at the monument built for them.  They marveled at the design, a full circle of towers representing each state in the union at the time of the war.  The north and south ends support larger towers representing the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of combat, respectively.  It all surrounds a pool with fountains constantly gushing.  Four thousand small, golden stars adorn the western wall.  Each star represents 100 Americans who didn’t come home.

“Until you look at that, you can’t realize how many that is,” said veteran Larry Booker, a former Marine Corps First Lieutenant.  “It really…it’s very graphic.”

Wide shot of the WWII Memorial looking south toward the Pacific Theater tower. From this vantage point, the Washington Monument is to my left. The Lincoln Memorial is to my right.

Part of Honor Flight’s entire purpose is based in this memorial’s relative youth.  Opened to the public in 2004, it’s nearly a decade younger than the Korean War Memorial and two decades younger than its Vietnam counterpart.  By the time it opened, even the youngest World War II veterans were in their late 70’s.

Many of the veterans on our trip wondered why it took the government so long to build a sacred spot acknowledging not only their sacrifice, but their friends who died to protect said government and its people.

Jack Clark, Marines corporal in the Pacific for 13 months, is fully convinced he’d be among the dead had the U.S. not dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, preventing the invasion of Japan.

“The servicemen and servicewomen who sacrificed their lives,” Clark says with a stoic face, “they’re what this brings back.”

THE CEMETERY

The moment happened so fast, I didn’t have enough time to fully appreciate what I was seeing.

As one of the first to step off our bus at the gates to Arlington National Cemetery, I heard horseshoes clopping on the asphalt.  I looked up to see six horses pulling a black artillery caisson with a flag-draped casket in tow.

The Old Guard was carrying a new resident home.

My preconceived notions once again proved off.  This was the spot so many of the veterans on our Honor Flight wanted to see.  The resting place they avoided because, as Helldiver pilot Maynard “Mitch” Mitchell put it, “luck was on my side.”

The Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns (Soldier) left everyone in awe.  If you’ve never seen it in person, I can’t do it justice.  Guards watching over the unknowns’ graves switch out every half hour this time of year, and the ceremony is meticulous in the strictest sense of the word.  The Tomb of the Unknowns has been guarded every hour of every day since before the veterans on our trip even served.

The Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Many veterans on our trip called this moment their favorite of the day.

George Todd, remarking on what he called dead silence, quietly said, “I’ve never seen that many people be that…I don’t know…in tune to what was going on.”

The most solemn man I listened to was former Navy Seaman Pete Curtis.  Staring at the thousands of gravestones, Curtis told me he never liked war and that there was “a lot of blood in that flag.”

Curtis became quiet toward the end of our conversation before offering a simple observation, pausing for emphasis between each sentence.

“So peaceful.  They’re all resting.  Many years they’ve been resting.”

THE BOND

Taka is one of the hardest working photojournalists I’ve ever had the privilege to work with.  Besides his work ethic and developed skill, the man has God-given talent and what many photogs simply call The Eye.  He sees important moments before they happen, frames shots in an artistic way most wouldn’t think of, and edits it all together in ways that have made my bosses say “wow” more than once.

Anyone who’s worked with Taka, a native of Japan, knows what he can do when given this kind of assignment.  The trip truly fascinated him.  One of Taka’s grandfathers lost his life on one of Japan’s war ships during World War II.  The government jailed another grandfather for speaking out against fighting the United States, calling Japan’s involvement “an ant fighting an elephant.”

Maynard “Mitch” Mitchell showing Taka his flight log book a week before our Honor Flight. Taka quickly became one of our veterans’ favorite members of the trip.

In the back of my mind, I wondered how Taka’s nationality would go over with some of the veterans who saw fierce fighting in the Pacific.

On the contrary, I’d say Taka was the most popular member of our trip by day’s end.  Veterans over and over voiced admiration for someone lugging 45 pounds (25-pound camera, 20-pound tripod) around our nation’s capitol, smiled as he scrambled to get in place for the best shots, and called him over to tell him stories.

THE RIDE HOME

The one part of each Honor Flight trip most veterans don’t see coming is Mail Call.

During the flight home, organizers distribute large white envelopes carrying dozens of letters from friends, family members, and perfect strangers.  Each letter thanks the vets for their service and sacrifice.

Former Army Tech 5 Bill Chick carried out Dr. Martin’s promise, laughing at his daughter’s letter reminding him of the time he walked across their driveway toward one of her suitors carrying an ax.  He then wiped away tears as she wrote how proud she was “knowing you are recognized as a man of stature, courage, and integrity.”

“I’m feeling torn up with this…this gesture,” said Chick.  “All of this, it’s just…just beyond description.”

THE RED CARPET

Throughout the day, I watched dozens of people make sure the veterans felt welcome.

With one person assigned to help each veteran throughout the day, it’s hard to praise the trip’s volunteer “Guardians” enough.

Many people, spotting a large group dressed the same and reading their shirts, walked up to shake hands.

“I was just thanking him for being here and thanking him for supporting us,” one woman at Reagan National said as she dashed away to catch her flight.  “I wish I could sit here and thank everybody.”

At Arlington National Cemetery, Army Lt. Col. Floreyce Palmer heard that two of our 29 veterans were women.  She immediately walked over to introduce herself and learned that, like her, veterans Bea Notley and Joan Ostrander were nurses.

“Since I’m a young buck, I thought I’d come see them,” said Lt. Col. Palmer.  “God bless you.”

Lt. Col. Floreyce Palmer poses for pictures at Arlington National Cemetery with the two female WWII veterans on our trip, Bea Notley (left) and Joan Ostrander (middle).

From the band at Reagan that got some of our veterans dancing to the large welcome crowd cheering them as they landed back at KCI, many of our men and women found such sustained and enthusiastic praise hard to believe.

One of our veterans cuts a rug at Reagan National before we board the flight back to Kansas City. I’m ready to drop at this point in the day. Some of the vets clearly have adrenaline left.

“It’s really a thrill to see all these people come out this time of night,” Maynard “Mitch” Mitchell said just before he left the Kansas City airport.  “I don’t know any of them, but they were hugging me and shaking my hand.  It’s just terrific.”

THE UPSHOT

KMBC will air our Honor Flight stories throughout the day on Thursday, May 17th.  We have a new story scheduled to air in every newscast from the morning show through the 10:00 broadcast and even into Friday’s morning show.  Channel 9 will also have phone banks up and running to accept donations and online donation options here.

Jerry Ameling, one of Heartland Honor Flight’s organizers who deserves far more credit than he receives, has big plans for Kansas City-area veterans.

He says $50,000 would pay for two planes of 30 veterans each to fly to D.C. this fall.  If we get to $75,000, the veterans can take a much more convenient charter flight.  Before we aired a single story, we already had $2,000 as people close to the Channel 9 family learned what we were doing.

The window to accomplish all this is closing.  Fewer veterans are able to go see their memorial each day.  Just for this Honor Flight, four men originally scheduled to attend couldn’t go.  Two had medical issues.  Two passed away.

By the end of our trip, Maynard Mitchell put it on himself to make on-camera solicitations.  The Japanese shot Mitch from the sky as the pilot made a bombing run against one of their ships.  Anti-aircraft rounds tore through Mitch’s Helldiver fuselage and hit his passenger just a few feet behind him.  He saved himself and his comrade with a water landing in the Sea of Japan.  Time and again, Mitch called his long, productive life “simple luck” that the round didn’t hit him.

The pilot’s log from the day the Japanese shot Maynard “Mitch” Mitchell from the sky.

I think Mitch’s gratitude of the flight reflected an entire life’s worth of knowing a higher power didn’t have to let him live.

“I know everybody’s asking for money nowadays,” said Mitch, “but if all the companies here in Kansas City got together and gave money to this organization…man, it would be terrific for the veterans.”

I hope you watch.  I hope you give.

I hope I have to start another day at 4:00 a.m.

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3 Responses to “The Day A Bunch Of 80-Year-Olds Wore Me Out”

  1. JoAnne Price Says:

    Thank you, Veterans. My father, Master Sergeant Frank H. Fabricius, US Army, US Air Force, served 22 years. He retired in 1953. He was so proud to be military, and we were proud of him, too. Bless you all for your service.

  2. Deb Grassi Says:

    Cliff, “Luck was on our side”, when KMBC paired us with you and camera man Taka. Loved the lightheartedness of your article, you captured the spirit of the day. Joy, anticipation and excitement pretty much is the way it went, yet an underlying feeling of reverence was always there. A daylong celebration long overdue! While taking pledges on Thursday viewers told me they didn’t want to stop watching TV in anticipation of the next story/pictures. We owe so many so much for helping pull off such a successful fundraiser but not as much as we owe our World War II veterans. As long as we have the funds we will take them on the trip of a lifetime. Thanks Cliff and Taka!
    Deb Grassi – Heartland Honor Flight

  3. Bridget Bauer Says:

    I admired your work so much after the Joplin tornado. You and Taka were “real troopers” on May 1st. I don’t know if you knew what you signed up for, but as I watched the telecasts and read your notes, you figured it out real fast. I agree with Deb when she says luck was on our side. You guys were incredible and the result of your work is testament to your dedication to your craft. Thanks much!!

    Bridget Bauer, Heartland Honor Flight (mail call!)

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