RURAL SOLON– Thank you. Two words which often seem insignificant, or are casually tossed about. But, to a veteran, they can be overwhelming when offered with sincerity.
Dave Mitchell knows first-hand the power of those words. A veteran of World War II with combat action in the European Theatre, Mitchell heard the words near-constantly as he went on a World War II Veterans Honor Tour in October 2012. A Cedar Rapids native, Mitchell served with the 17th Airborne Division’s 194th Glider Infantry Regiment. The division was part of the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-1945 and crossed the Rhine River in March of 1945 as part of Operation Varsity, which Mitchell described as “a 200-mile long ‘air train,’” comprised of cargo planes pulling large gliders carrying men and equipment.
After the division was disbanded in the fall of 1945 and Sgt. Mitchell was discharged, he returned to Cedar Rapids and attended Coe College on the GI Bill, earning a degree in commerce and finance in 1949. Later, he ran the Cedar Rapids office of the Iowa Inspections Bureau, a company providing fire insurance inspections to over 200 insurance providers, for 33 years. In 1952 he married Madeline, who he met while in college, and the couple had three sons and a daughter. In retirement, Dave and Madeline put in another 25 years of volunteering with the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City.
With the passing of time the battles of World War II became an ever-distant memory for our nation in general, and many veterans, like Mitchell, wondered if anybody remembered their service and sacrifice. The Honor Tour not only assured Mitchell that he and the 10 fellow veterans he was with were remembered, they were also overwhelmed with the outpouring of gratitude and appreciation they received.
While an Honor Flight consists of a one-day, out and back whirlwind tour of the various monuments and memorials in and around Washington, D.C., an Honor Tour is a multi-day event. It should be noted that the Honor Flight and Honor Tour are events sponsored by two separate organizations with national and state-level groups. Pam Ramer of Muscatine coordinated the Oct. 11 through 14 tour. According to Mitchell, no expense was spared.
“We stayed in the best of hotels and ate in the best of restaurants,” he said. “Every single detail was handled by Pat and was absolutely free to us veterans.” Mitchell’s son Jim, himself a veteran of the First Marine Division during the Vietnam War, went along as an escort. While veterans go for free, escorts have to pay their own way at an estimated cost of $1,000. The trip originated at the Quad Cities International Airport in Moline, Ill., where a crowd of well wishers saw them off. During a layover at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, the veterans posed for pictures and mingled with even more people, including current members of the U.S. military and Chicago police officers assigned to the terminal. One officer was so taken with Mitchell he presented the vet with a CPD uniform patch and his business card. Mitchell joked the items could come in handy if he were to get into trouble in D.C. “He told me if I did he’d take care of it,” Mitchell said with a laugh.
Mitchell said even children (prompted by their parents) would go up to them and say thank you, a gesture he described as heart warming.
“I can’t tell you how well we were treated,” Mitchell said adding he was stunned that after 70 years, there was such an outpouring of gratitude. “I cannot impress on you enough how appreciated we were.”
In the D.C. area, the group visited the Arlington National Cemetery and observed the awe-inspiring changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A visit to the White House included watching a group exercising the First Amendment rights the men fought to protect. While nearly everyone the veterans encountered wanted to shake their hands and say thank you, the protesters were not so inclined. Mitchell did add they were advised to stay away from the demonstrators.
Two highlights for Mitchell were the World War II Memorial and the Korean War Memorial. The World War II Memorial has been described as the jewel of the mall and features a wall with over 4,000 gold stars, each one representing 100 dead or missing Americans for a total of 405,399. Seeing the stars and knowing personally some of the men they represented was especially poignant for Mitchell.
He was also especially taken with the Korean War Memorial and its 19 statues of American infantry moving uphill. The meticulous attention to detail and life-sized nature of the statues struck Mitchell, as did the realization their eyes, “followed you wherever you went.” A granite wall reflects the statues, doubling them for a total of 38, which represents the 38th Parallel, the boundary line between North and South Korea. While the Korean memorial struck him as the most moving, nothing, he said, could ever rival the World War II memorial in splendor.
Although the tour takes a more leisurely pace than the one-day Honor Flights, Mitchell said, “we needed every minute of every day.” The men posed for a group photo at every stop, and repeatedly, other tourists asked to take pictures of them, as well as to shake their hands and thank them personally. “It took every minute of every day to get everything done,” he said.
The group from eastern Iowa and western Illinois included a pair of nurses, a sailor, a marine and a truck driver; a group Mitchell called, “a variety of people making a living in many different ways.” While not all had seen combat like he did, Mitchell pointed out in the service, “Nobody can help what they have to do. You go where they send you.” He said he didn’t know any of the veterans before the trip but added, “I got to know them quite well.”
The former paratrooper and glider-borne infantryman had nothing but praise for Ramer and everybody connected with the tour, saying he was impressed with “the care these people went to, to make sure everything was right,” on what was surely a once-in-a-lifetime event. Mitchell noted with the loss of 1,000 World War II veterans everyday, and the number of surviving veterans with medical problems (including confinement to wheelchairs), the days of the World War II Flights and Tours may be coming to an end with more and more upcoming trips targeted to Korean War veterans.
As he looked through a stack of photos and souvenirs from the tour, Mitchell reiterated how, “you just can’t get over all the people wanting to shake your hand. The thank you’s are just so heartfelt.” He said one of the reasons for the tour was to have people see and meet the veterans. Mitchell called the trip absolutely marvelous, and expressed his gratitude by saying, “it choked me up, it really did.”