A Portrait of Freedom and Good Humor " Grand County Vets visit war memorial | SkyHiNews.com

A Portrait of Freedom and Good Humor " Grand County Vets visit war memorial

Avis Gray
Special to the Sky-Hi Daily News
Grand County, Colorado


Their names are deceptively simple ” Bob, Chuck, Joe, and Mac ” but their deeds are much more complex. They are an important few of Grand County’s unsung heroes and veterans of World War II.

On April 28, they joined 130 of their Colorado compatriots to fly on the Northern Colorado Honor Flight from Denver to Washington, D.C. There, they were to be celebrated and guided to their War Memorial and also to the memorials of their younger wartime brethren.

The trip’s plans have been almost a year in the making, and our gentlemen are ready for this unique venture ” only the second such Honor Flight from Colorado. For the Greatest Generation, their trip will be free.

Joe Recktenwald, a Seabee from the Construction Battalion, is postponing a visit to his medical specialists until after the trip. He promises: “If need be, I’ll crawl to the tarmac ” I’ll be there, and nothing will hold me back.”

Mac Ruske, a Veteran of the 10th Mountain Army Division Ski Troopers, is flying in from his winter home in Arizona to join the crew.

Chuck Illsley, 2nd Battalion of the 60th Infantry, has already returned to Grand Lake to guarantee he’ll safely make the departure date.

Bob Seaton, Coxswain to the Captain’s Gig and a year-round resident of Grand Lake, is already packed and helping with important details.

I, Avis Gray, am a traveling Guardian with our “Squadron” and one of 55 other volunteers, mostly medical, accompanying the vets. For months now, we have been communicating with the Commander and Squadron leaders of the Honor Flight Program. They have “handles” such as “Hellfire,” “Wildblue,” “One-Dogger,” and “Seeingstarz,” so I’m certain to be working with the likes of aviators and retired Air Force volunteers who always seem to correspond via crisp e-mails at 1900.

My suggested mission from them, to date, is to figure out a way to get 134 pairs of 90-year-olds’ shoes through security check points and return them safely to their rightful owners. We are told this was an inconvenient problem at the Inaugural Colorado Honor Flight last September.

Tomorrow I train as a Guardian for the trip in Ault. We will be taught how to properly pick up heavy weights, wrestle with a sea of wheelchairs and oxygen tanks, and maintain an efficient sense of humor throughout the trip.

Luckily, our Four Musketeer Vets from Grand County are in grand shape and are also strong, willing helpers. Our mountain villages are almost “Blue Zone” communities, I’m reminded ” the few areas in the world where people live the longest, healthiest, and happiest. Bob, Chuck, Joe, and Mac are doing just that.

D-Day ” 2 (April 26)

Our guardian training is today in Ault, at the home of Colonel Stanley D. Cass (Hellfire). He graduated from West Point, is a former Huey pilot from Vietnam days, and is now president of the Colorado Honor Flight. He is also the guiding light and an impeccable coordinator. Ault, in Weld County, is a tidy agrarian community, about the size of Grand Lake. Not big. It boasts a Bison Breath Saloon, a cafe serving krautburgers, and a small grocery store with “Swedish food specialties.” A large American flag clearly identifies Stan’s home, an oasis on the plains, as does a parked Ford truck with a label of “Support our Troops” patched on it.

Apparently, I am the only woman at this particular training, and try to remain inconspicuous by drinking a Molson without a request for a glass. Most of the others are Vietnam-era volunteers. They’ve just upped the ante to 134 Vets, with the roster changing daily, increasing the wheelchair count to 45. More than 1,200 World War II Vets die daily, we are solemnly informed. We are also reassured that when the Vets see their Memorials, they’ll “just kick the wheelchairs to the side and bound to their sites.” Another reassurance is that the TSA screening system was partially coordinated by a friend of a participating Guardian, so luckily our screening at BWI Airport will be “modified and relaxed.” “No knives, swords, or bayonets” we are reminded.

Martin Lind, who donated $55,000 to get the first Colorado Honor Flight off the ground, will be an honored guest accompanying us. There should also be about 500 people sending us off from the Bud Center in Loveland, and 500 more at the Denver terminal. Navy Intelligence will have about 150 people represented with the possibility of an F-16 Flyover, along with bagpipers, buglers, and at least 12 mayors standing at attention. Forty-five Patriot Riders will escort us in a motorcade to the terminal where our airplane “rolls in at 9:47.” All of this celebration is a surprise to most of the Vets, including the two free hotel drink tickets to each. “What the Hell?” Cass states calmly. “They’re all over 80 and have survived really tough situations for many of those years ” they can handle two drink tickets.”

The logistics are daunting, the planning impeccable.

D-Day – 1 (April 27)

We, the four Vets and I, are to rendezvous at a hotel in Fort Collins, to facilitate our early morning departure tomorrow morning. We agree to meet at five this afternoon, but quite predictably, it’s only 3:40 p.m. and they are all here and reporting for duty. Joe greets us with: “You know, I feel like the first day in boot camp ” a whole new beginning to life as it was.” Good spirits are abounding as is the quick repartee. Bob states he didn’t have time for his $4 haircut in Granby. Chuck, looking incredulous, asks; “Where, at the dog-groomers?”

Mac suddenly states: “I feel a little guilty coming on this grand trip. I had a pretty ‘good’ war-picking coconuts (New Hebrides) instead of getting shot at.” We all assure him that as a brave member of the 10th, he deserves every moment of the trip. They then all move on to both current events and memories of Grand Lake in yesteryear. “This was the time when some didn’t know the difference between rustic and rundown” Mac states wisely. “You think Grand Lake is isolated today in the winter? Not too far back, we even had drag races on Main Street (Grand Avenue) when there was absolutely no one to run over.”

We have a celebratory dinner together with a helpful friend, Rardon, and also my daughter, Tallie, and grandson, Bowen, who will help escort us to the Bud Center at the crack of dawn. Tallie is curious and asks why so many World War II vets have survived the horrors of war relatively unscathed and remain so sharp today. Bob responds: ” Well, sure I’m convinced it was the way we were brought up ” a lot of hard work, few sugar highs, and a clear sense of duty. When I went into the Navy, I weighed only 135 pounds ” all steel and bones. I knew how to work.” Chuck adds: “I was only 19 when shooting the enemy and being shot at by them. But it clearly was in the line of duty, and I couldn’t dwell on it.” They all agree it was not so much choice as survival, and this they accepted. They also all practiced “service above self,” and to this day, still do.

D-Day (April 28)

We all head for the Bud Center before the birds are up to be embraced by at least 500 friends ” all waving flags and banners. The “Nostalgia” singers are pumping out oldies in the Andrew Sisters’ style. A band plays, the major TV stations record, as bagpipers and buglers, Honor Guards, the hundreds of red/white/and blue cupcakes, and of course the amazed Vets all add color to the spectacular celebration.

The “Denver Post” interviews Bob. He is not shy with his words. “I think about the kids who didn’t come back. There were six on my battle station alone (the light cruiser USS Columbia in Iwo Jima and other battles in the Pacific). When we were hit by a kamikaze, I was the only one who survived.”

Chuck adds: “It was hell, but I managed to get through it.” He, at 19, carried a Browning Automatic Rifle, and hiked through unimaginable miles of snow and brutal cold.

The Patriot Riders form a motorcycle procession. Forty-five men in their leather jackets and colorful patches of Vietnam days, are supportive and ever so kindly-they honor these Vets, even if their own days of war are not so honored. Mac jokes as we head out behind the motorcade to the air-cargo area of DIA for our chartered flight; “Maybe they are flying us U.P.S.,” he says.

On I-25, and over most overpasses, firefighters salute and fire trucks honk. Ambulance corps set their lights flashing. Flags are waving. Chuck drolly notes: “At this rate, they’ll all be waiting for us when we come back.”

“And to think,” Bob reflects, “this all started at our Rotary pancake breakfast last summer in Grand Lake. Amidst the hundreds of pancakes, we showed our new book there (“Our Men of the Mountains” about these very same Vets) to these two visiting fellows from Fort Collins. They read a few chapters about our war exploits, we even signed their books, and they promptly invited us to join Honor Flight. Now we’re actually here.”

Joe adds, “I haven’t seen anything like this since V-E Day. The only thing left is dancing in the streets.”

Outside the hanger, a helicopter dips and announces the arrival of our airbus. It is close to that promised 9:47. Bands play, and roll call confirms that we’re all officially off to D.C.

I sit in an assigned seat between two World War II Vets from the Fort Collins area. With amazing recall, one ” a former professor of Wildlife Economy, (Carl Hittle), and the other, a former flight surgeon (Gerald Weiss) ” converse on diverse subjects. Dr. Hittle was able to graduate from med school at the tender age of 21. “Back then, our medical training was compressed, to put it mildly. I did everything from pinning hips to neurosurgery, and even was the flight surgeon on the first Air Force One. “Funny thing, on the bus I just sat next to a friend who flew the Hump (The Himalayas) 99 times with no adverse physical consequences. But for the first time he had motion sickness today on our bus.”

A third Vet (John Embick) joins in. They are all anxious to share their stories. He was a tail-gunner (bomb spotter) for two missions on D-Day. “The air was so thick with planes and cargo ships you could have walked from one to the other all the way from England to France. The sky was just black with airplanes, and this is how I knew the invasion was really on.”

It appears no one is ready for a nap quite yet. Song breaks out on the airbus with Army and Navy, vastly overwhelming the Marines and Air Force. Mac and only one other represent the 10th.

At last, we safely enter B.I.A. and are greeted by a host of National Honor Flight people dressed in vivid chartreuse T-shirts. All of the passengers, upon seeing our entourage, clap and cheer as the Vets enter the Terminal gates.

My “roommate” at the Hilton in Baltimore is a wonderful surprise. She is a petite and vivacious Woman Marine from WW II. Jeanette Hodges Zajec is pushing 90, wears a bright red shirt with huge letters signifying “Woman Marine” on it, and lipstick to match. One of the first women Marines in the country, she happily lets me know that “once a Marine, always a Marine” is her proud motto. She is one of only two women Vets on this trip, and was one of 2,100 Women Marines at Cherry Point Marine Base in North Carolina, with a male contingency of over 30,000.

“In boot camp,” she explains with precision, “we women practiced judo, reassembly of our rifles, drilling, and eternal marching. Always marching. Women Marines could not go overseas then, but we did our share for the troops by eating inferior meat. Some say it was horsemeat…. I became an aircraft draftsman and made drawings of aircraft parts so we could make our own or retrofit parts since there was usually no time to buy the parts.” She continues: “They transferred some of the Navy women to help train our newly organized Women Marines. They even told us what red lipstick to wear to match the red cords on our Marine hats. Things were certainly different then.”

I call down to Dave Arnold’s room to have him meet Jeanette. Dave, of Grand Lake, has graciously accompanied a few family members of our local Vets on a commercial flight from DIA to have them also partake in some of the well-earned celebration here. He too is a Marine, but from the Vietnam era. She looks Dave squarely in the eye, flashes a smile, and reminds him that “once a Marine, always a Marine.” They pose for a picture, somehow looking like they’ve been buddies forever.

Jeanette continued her drafting career over the next decades, and also started a collection of books about the First Ladies. She now has over 200 editions, with favorite First Ladies being Dolly Madison and Eleanor Roosevelt.

D-Day + 1, April 29

It’s raining hard and perhaps the weather paints an appropriate, even poetic, time to visit the World War II Memorial in the heart of D.C. Dedicated in May. 2004, the Memorial is balanced between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument sites. It is both a reflection and a symbol of the War which was dedicated to preserving our democracy above all else. A Freedom Wall, studded with 4,000 gold stars commemorates the more than 400,000 Americans who gave their lives. As many as 16 million Americans served in uniform. This was the war that indeed changed the world and was fought across six of the world’s seven continents and all of its oceans, killing over 50 million. Our Vets are absorbed in their own thoughts as they traverse the grounds, dedicated to both the European and Pacific theaters. It continues to rain, but only some seem to notice.

Later, the Vets stroll by the Lincoln Memorial. Jeanette ambles more quickly and states that even though she doesn’t mind climbing all those steps, perhaps to conserve time, we should take the elevator. The fighting men of the Iwo Jima statue, a Marine Corps Memorial, is next to visit and a powerful image. It portrays the American flag being heroically raised on Mt. Suribachi, all too familiar to a few of our vets who were there.

We then see the 19 larger-than-life stainless steel statues of our bounding warriors at the Korean Veterans Memorial. Next is the awe-inspiring simplicity of the Vietnam Memorial. On the polished granite walls, more than 59,000 names are inscribed. The walls go on forever, as do the names, and the vast atrocity of War is never so evident.

Our vets, at the end of the day, are content to return to Colorado. It’s been a quick trip, but their missions have been more than accomplished. With an un-orderly pile of shoes stashed for security check, a buoyant flight attendant searches for the owner of a belt she dangles from her fingers and at the same time searches for a lost hearing aid.

My flight companion, a retired California principal and Marine Vet from both WW II and the Korean War sums up the trip quite accurately for many. “Seeing our Memorial was intensely meaningful, of course. But for me, the lines of firefighters saluting on the overpasses, the crowds waving flags, the volunteers making all of those cupcakes and wielding wheelchairs, the small children thanking us so sincerely-now that’s America at its best. And that is most meaningful and heartfelt.”

This truly was a time when lasting sacrifice and selfless service was paramount. Our Greatest Generation returns to Colorado and to the greeting of their loved ones.

I glimpse at their new T-shirts as they leave the pavilion, and printed on them is the perfect motto: “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a Veteran.”

” We all wish to thank Stan Cass, the guiding light to the Northern Colorado Honor Flight, the Community Foundation for Honor Flight, the hundreds of volunteers, and most of all the Grand Lake Rotary for making this all possible.