Veterans, students make their ‘connections’ for trip to nation’s capital

Area veterans and their teenage guardians from Lyndon and Central Heights high schools take a moment at the World War II Memorial during their tour last week of Washington memorials as part of Honor Flight 17.

By Cleon Rickel

On Merle Marsh’s last flight to Washington, D.C., he was in the back of a World War II B-17 Flying Fortress.

“I was there once during the war,” Marsh, of Carbondale, Kan., said. “We were the crew of the week, so we got to fly into Washington.”

His return to Washington occurred June 5, when he flew in the front of another Boeing aircraft, this time a commercial 737 jetliner.

Marsh was one of three World War II veterans who were flown to Washington by Honor Flight 17, organized by high school students at Lyndon High School and Central Heights High School.

Marsh’s son-in-law, Don Forbes, also of Carbondale, and a Vietnam-era veteran, accompanied him on the flight.

Marsh went into the U.S. Army Air Force in 1944 and was trained to be a tailgunner in the large four-engine bombers in Florida. The war in Germany ended before he was assigned combat missions.

“We flew four hours every other day,” he recalled.

Being a tailgunner was just a shade less dangerous than being in the ball turret in the belly of the big bombers. To get to the two 50-caliber machines in the tail of the bomber, the tailgunner had to crawl into a tight, cold and drafty space and sit on what amounted to a bicycle-type seat in a kneeling position and leaning forward on his chest parachute.

“It was a little scary but after the first time back there, it isn’t bad,” Marsh said.

The tailgunners had to be alert for fast, nimble enemy airplanes roaring up behind their bombers.

To prepare them for the speedy German Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf fighters, the tailgunners would train on Jeeps with shotguns attached at the back. As the Jeeps bounced along at 20 miles as hour or so, clay pigeons would be launched at or behind them.

Though it was Marsh’s second trip to Washington, it was the first for his son-in-law Forbes.

“The whole trip is awesome,” Forbes said. “It’s geared for the veterans but it’s nice to see a lot of young people. It’s heartening to see young people take such an interest.”

For the 25 mostly elderly veterans who went on Honor Flight 17, it was a chance to see “their memorial”, be it World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Air Force Memorial, the Navy Memorial, the Marine Corps’ Iwo Jima Memorial or the Tomb of the Unknowns.

For the two-day trip, each veteran was matched with a student escort from either Lyndon or Central Heights called a “guardian.”

“I feel it’s good for the younger crowd who interact with the people who went to war and have that connection,” said USD 288 Superintendent Brian Spencer, formerly superintendent of Lyndon schools. “I think that’s important.”

And the honor flight isn’t a vacation for the students, said Spencer, who helped organize this trip and 16 previous trips, most of which occurred while he was Lyndon superintendent.

Before shepherding their veterans across Washington and to several memorials, pushing their wheelchairs, fetching bottled water, and asking questions, the students had to hold fund-raisers and seek donations for the $31,000 for the trip so there’s no cost to the veterans for the flight, lodging and food.

In two small rural school districts where the economy is slack and money is tight and no big contributors, they had to work hard to raise the funds, including selling homemade burritos.

“A lot of burritos,” Spencer said.

Spencer said he has stacks of cards and letters that tell the story of the connection among the veterans and students – why he keeps organizing the flights.

“A part of the story that I think is great but never gets told is the contacts and relationships between the guardians and vets after the trip,” Spencer said.

They’ll continue to correspond long after the trip, he said.

“I heard one story that a vet came by the guardian’s house just to check on her and tell her parents how much he enjoyed the trip with her,” Spencer said. “He got a supper invite out of that visit.”

Photo and story thanks to Cleon Rickel.

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