Dennis Hultgren, of rural Akron, S.D., was chosen along with 140 fellow Korean War veterans to participate in a one-day Honor Flight to the nation’s Capitol on Oct. 30.
Over 600 applied for the free trip. To cut the list down to the required number, only those who actually served in the Combat Zone during the Korean War were permitted to go, explained Hultgren. No wives or other family members went along on the flight so that as many veterans as possible could participate.
This flight was not financed with government funds, he said. All of the expenses for the trip were paid from funds collected by the Western Iowa Honor Flight Committee, working out of Council Bluffs. A host of donors gave funds in various amounts with several large donations up to $80,000 from foundations and individuals.
In addition to the 140 veterans on the Honor Flight, about 40 people volunteered to go along to help make the trip workable and interesting for all. This group included nurses, physician’s assistants and those who pushed wheelchairs for those needing that help. Hultgren used his own wheeled walker with a built in seat.
The veterans were in various stages of old age – remember almost all of the Korean War veterans are now in their 80s or older, said Hultgren.
Veterans registered at the Ramada Inn Hotel in Omaha, Neb., Oct. 29 and were given a jacket, cap, shirt, “fanny pack” and a camera.
“I had my own digital camera which I lost,” said Hultgren. “Later, the camera was found and returned. They developed the pictures and identified me as owner. I had no I.D. at all on it — amazing.”
At registration, the 140 veterans were assigned to three groups.
“I was in the white group, which kept me on the same bus hired either in Omaha or Washington D.C.,” said Hultgren, explaining there were a white bus, red bus and blue bus. “That is how they kept track of everyone.”
A pre-flight banquet was held for the veterans and their families. A fine patriotic program included the Presentation of Colors, Pledge of Allegiance, prayers, patriotic music, short talks, special musical entertainment and a Service Medley performed by a community school band.
“It was nice,” said Hultgren, whose wife, Nelda, and their daughter, Ruth and son-in-law Scott Henneman of Omaha, Neb., attended the program with him.
At 2 a.m. Oct. 30, the veterans were awakened and their venture began with a U.S. Air Force Band performance as they walked through Eppley Airport to the departure area.
“We didn’t have to go through security at all,” said Hultgren. “I guess they felt we weak old men were not a danger to National Security and harmless besides. Our plane was a 737 jet and it was full.”
All the meals were served as “boxed lunches” during the entire trip.
The veterans arrived at Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. at 9:30 a.m. Eastern time and were immediately transported by bus to the Korean War Memorial.
“The Korean War Memorial is very impressive,” said Hultgren. “It brings you back to what war really was like in 1950 to 1953.”
“It is a group of 19 stainless steel, larger than life-size soldiers on patrol in a place of great danger,” explained Hultgren. “Each statue has different characteristics and expressions. The facial expressions are not happy looks but impressions of worry and weari-ness. They are wearing Army ponchos to protect them from rain or bitter winters. They are armed with semi-automatic carbines. They are spread out so any enemy attack would not kill them all at once, and the survivors could return the fire and radio for help.”
“The 224th Infantry Regiment Graves Registration Unit, I personally was in charge of, had to drive up to the area just behind the front lines in Korea almost every night to pick up the dead,” said Hultgren. “Sometimes there would be one killed, and sometimes we had seven or eight dead soldiers.”
“This was in North Korea,” he said. “It was a very dangerous duty for these young men to be on patrol — like those men depicted in this realistic Memorial.”
There were 54,246 Americans killed in battle in the Korean War, which lasted three years and one month, said Hultgren adding an additional 103,284 were wounded. “These are the heroes of that time in our history.”
“I want to mention that I observed the reactions of the visitors to the Memorial,” said Hultgren who had been to the Korean War Memorial several years ago right after it was dedicated. “(This time) it was quiet. No laughing or joking around. It was serious business.”
“There were many civilians there, too,” he said. “I noticed a large group of Orientals visiting the Memorial. They even offered to take pictures of us so we could be on our own cameras.”
“If you had a little extra time, you could walk in front of the Lincoln Memorial, which is very near the Korean War Memorial,” said Hultgren. “You could try and imagine the great things that happened there in front of the Lincoln Memorial.”
Next, the veterans were given a bus tour of Washington, including many government buildings and the Washington Monument which was covered with scaffolding as it was being repaired from damage caused by an earthquake.
Next, the veterans visited the World War II Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns, and the Iwo Jima Memorial. Then they returned to the Korean War Memorial.
“This time evening was moving in,” said Hultgren. “The sun was disappearing and long shadows dramatized the site. There were no tourists or others there. Just us (veterans).”
“It made this last visit even more humbling to us all,” he said. “What these men did over 60 years ago will be remembered and appreciated by all who visit this place.”
Lastly, the veterans returned to Dulles Airport for their flight home.
“I must commend those who donated the funds to establish this Memorial,” said Hultgren. “Because of the efforts of many people, and also the good maintenance by the National Park System, citizens may visit and reflect on sacrifices in death and also the years given by those who served in the Armed Forces to preserve and protect the freedoms we have all inherited.”
“All gave some and some gave all,” he said. “They call the Korean War the ‘Forgotten War.’ I assure you that it will never be forgotten by those who served in that war.”
“While moving through that very large airport, we were met and greeted by many people, young and old waving flags and just being kind to us all,” said Hultgren. “I don’t know when or how all of these people were contacted so that they were all ‘on deck’ at the proper place and time. It was incredible.”
A similar tribute was performed as the veterans walked from the plane to their buses at about 11 p.m. back in Omaha.
Another interesting group who met and welcomed us consisted of several Korean women, dressed in fancy traditional Korean clothing, said Hultgren. “They thanked us for saving the Republic of Korea.”
Hultgren talked with one of the women, sharing his memories of giving his sandwich to a young Korean boy while he was waiting to board a train to continue north into North Korea.
“I told her I have never forgotten that boy,” said Hultgren, adding he told her “Korea is admired today because of the way you have successfully turned a country in ruins into an economy that is 15th in the world even though it is a small country.”
Hultgren hugged the woman in appreciation for her “taking the trouble to meet these old veterans in the middle of the night.”
The veterans were also stopped by people who wanted to greet them and shake their hands as they ended their trip and met up with their friends and family members. These people included about 10 Vietnam War veterans who “showed up to honor the veterans of the war before theirs.”
Of all the memorials and monuments the Honor Flight veterans saw, Hultgren said the Korean War Monument was the most impressive — “because it was personal.”
“But what I will remember for the rest of my life is the kindness and generosity of many people who made the trip possible,” said Hultgren. “People can take a trip to our nation’s Capitol and view countless statues and memorials. You can see them 20 years ago or 20 years from now. They will be the same.”
“More important to me for this trip was the goodness demonstrated effectively by everyone I associated with,” said Hultgren. “That kindness was priceless.”