An Honor Flight: A Final Tour With Honor

Posted May 30, 2019 at 11:22 pm

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By Julie Ann Madden

Sixty-seven years ago, a 23-year-old Akron man received his military draft notice.

After going to Sioux Falls, S.D., for an initial medical physical, Clifford Waag was inducted into the U.S. Army and placed on a train headed for Chicago, Ill.

Waag, who will celebrate his 90th birthday later this year, remembers his parents, Mina and Charles Waag, standing at the Akron train depot as he departed for the Korean War.

Waag completed Basic Training at Fort Knox, Ky., and off to the West Coast he went to board a ship going to Japan.

After about 17 days on the ship, Waag’s unit headed to an U.S. Army camp near the base of Mt. Fuji. Before he arrived, his tank battalion had taken a beating fighting the enemy so they didn’t go to the front lines. They moved all their equipment from Mt. Fuji to the Japanese coast.

Then his battalion traveled by ship to South Korea, where Waag and his fellow soldiers guarded “a couple thousand” North Korean prisoners of war. Waag’s duties were to walk the prison camp’s perimeter and walk through the prisoners’ barracks.

“We couldn’t carry a gun in the barracks,” said Waag, noting soldiers walked through the barracks alone — prisoners lying in their beds on both sides of them. “We carried a club, similar to an oversized baseball bat.”

“They had their eye on you all the time,” said Waag. “I’d walk all the way through there. I never had no trouble with any of them.”

He credits that to his size, noting the North Koreans were small in stature.

Waag told The Akron Hometowner, “The language barrier kind of messed you up.”

None of the prisoners escaped the camp but they got close, said Waag, explaining they had dug tunnels within a few feet of the perimeter fencing.

Waag’s service was cut short due to a family emergency at home. His father had had a stroke, and Waag was needed in the family’s farming operation.

Waag was honorably discharged with a rank of Corporal on Oct. 19, 1953.

He flew home on a commercial U.S. Air Force plane — stopping several places to refuel, including Guam and Hawaii — before landing in San Francisco, Calif.

“My family couldn’t believe I got home so fast,” said Waag. “They were surprised when I showed up at the door one day.”

There was no Welcome Home celebration or party.

Waag went on with his life — farming with his father. Then he married Shirley Johnson of Elk Point, S.D., and they raised two children: Lynette (James) Kiger and Kenny Waag, both of Akron. The Waags have one grandchild, Kirsten Simon of Akron.

Waag had never been to Washington D.C. but a Home Health nurse, Chris Van Beek, convinced him to take a Midwest Honor Flight to see the Korean War Memorial with other veterans.

Waag was initially set to take the flight in September 2018 but health issues postponed the trip to this past May 7. He took the trip with his son-in-law, James Kiger, his Honor Flight partner/guardian.

What most impressed Waag was the children meeting them at the Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington D.C. They thanked him for his service, handing him a lei of paper red-white-and-blue stars they had made.

“They shook my hand and told me thanks for serving,” said Waag, who is amazed at the amount of people who wished him well and thanked him for his service while on the Honor Flight tour.

The Korean War Memorial where the soldiers appeared to be looking at you no matter where you were at the memorial also topped his list of special Honor Flight memories.

The oldest veteran was 98 1/2 years old — some older and others younger than Waag, who also enjoyed the camaraderie with fellow veterans on the day-long Honor Flight.

The Honor Flight began with a banquet May 6 at the Sheraton Hotel in Sioux Falls, S.D. Waag chose to skip the banquet and join the Honor Flight in the wee hours of May 7. When they took off from the Sioux Falls Airport, area firefighters conducted a Water Cannon Salute over the plane — a tribute that was repeated as they landed in Washington D.C.

After landing in Washington D.C., they were greeted by Congressmen, including South Dakota Senator John Thune and lines of people, including groups of children. Airport personnel saluted the veterans or stood with their hands across their hearts honoring them.

“A lot of veterans may not have openly cried at this welcome but wailed up inside,” said Kiger.

Senator Chuck Grassley’s female interns visited with the Honor Flight veterans at the World War II Memorial.

One of their most touching moments was at Arlington National Cemetery at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. From the guards’ precise actions to the honoring silence, both were touched by what they witnessed.

Just like when serving one’s country, the flight had a couple blips — one veteran broke his leg and the plane’s cargo door issue delayed the return flight home.

Every veteran — it doesn’t matter if he or she can walk or is dependent on oxygen — the Honor Flight coordinators will find a way to get each to see every monument on the tour, said Kiger, noting there aren’t memorials for Desert Storm and Gulf War veterans yet.

Neither Waag or Kiger had ever been to Washington D.C. — only seen these veteran memorials on TV.

“Seeing it in real life, it’s a whole lot different,” said Kiger.

“It was heart-wrenching,” said a tearful Kiger, explaining it was seeing the looks on some of these veterans’ faces. “You can see they were touched. I still get choked up about it (two weeks after the Honor Flight).”

Listening to the veterans also grabbed one’s heart as many spoke about happenings they’d never spoke about before the Honor Flight, he added.

Waag recalled a veteran who had lost an arm and legs due to a land mine explosion and was hospitalized in Japan — the constant screaming in pain still haunts him today.

Receiving a “Mail Call” package filled with letters from people — children, family members and veterans — on the return Honor Flight home is something Waag still thumbs through.

The Honor Flight veterans also received dog tags, Commanders’ coins which are pins, including one designating them as a 700th Honor Flight participant.

“You couldn’t believe it,” said Waag. “So many good-hearted people. I appreciate all this stuff.”

Editor’s Note: For more information on the Midwest Honor Flights, visit their website: www.MidwestHonorFlight.org.

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