Big Sky Honor Flight Montana, in some measure, rights or may at least balance something of a debt that was never collected or even asked to be paid by World War II veterans owed them by their government.
If that seems too harsh, it is a fact that World War II veterans “just came home” without the flag-waving brass band parades, without the marching through streets of cheering throngs that accompanied the return of servicemen celebrating the end of World War I.
The men and women of the World War II generation willingly, unreservedly and proudly – without personal reservation – whether enlisted or drafted into America’s armed services, provided their service – their very lives – at the request of the government for as long as needed until the war’s successful conclusion and thankful ending, finally, in mid-August 1945.
That contrast between “coming home” from service and how they began their military service remains an understatement and a testament to the nobility and sacrifice of World War II veterans. From the depths of catastrophic defeats at the war’s onset to magnificent yet costly victories culminating in success, the war’s Navy, Army and Marine Corps veterans learned how to fight, won crucial, bitter and desperate battles and then just came home.
When two searing atomic bomb explosions on Japan ended a bitter, exhausting four-year campaign that forced the war’s final capitulation and surrender in August 1945 (the equally bitter and costly European Theater war against Germany had ended in early May 1945), U.S. servicemen were simply “discharged” from service on a point system. For many there was no real “official” home arrival celebration. Longer serving veterans accumulated points so that those with the most came home first and so on until the armed services – soldiers, sailors, Marines – all came home to resume life or begin careers that had been forcibly interrupted by the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.
It must be said once more: Generally, there were few celebrations for returning World War II veterans. Feelings of grateful thanks – just the appreciation that a veteran was coming home alive, well and safe, predominated homecomings. Those family observances were capped by the one rewarding feeling of relief that there might not be any more telegrams followed by letters from an unknown officer with an unknown postmark.
If there were celebrations, they were private, consisting of a change of clothes, dinner with wives or family, and then an attempt at answering the burning question of what to do next: whether to go to school under a newly enacted GI Bill, or find a job. And as it turned out and is so often said, “the rest is history”: A generation of young men and women took off their uniforms, buried experiences only they knew or remembered, shared a word of good luck with surviving friends and went home.
In a sense, that is how the Second World War finally was consigned to history – thanks to all its veterans. All of them. Conquering heroes we were not and did not want to be. An unwanted conflict was over; its mind-searing effects could finally be hidden if not lost, and life could begin again.
Many veterans did go to school, found jobs, settled down, raised families and made the contributions that justified the reasons the war had to be fought by them in the first place: defeat dangerous and threatening and unprovoked attacking enemies on two sides of the world at once and then return their country again to its peaceful pursuits, whatever those might be.
Now, so many years later and even later for many veterans in several states, Big Sky Honor Flight Montana dedicates itself as a “Salute to Heroes” to those remaining Montana veterans of World War II.
A guide booklet includes brief military biographies of some 89 veterans on the flight concluding with the statement: “The flight and the group’s efforts are dedicated to the men and women who bravely served their country during World War II in all branches of the military. They served the country when it was needed most. It is our honor to now serve them.”
The preface also says, in paraphrase, that in the “Profiles in Courage” of the honored veterans, a story unfolds of courage, duty, honor, dedication, sacrifice and patriotism and that ”honoring those traits is what the Big sky Honor flight is all about.”
About the trip?
Those Montana veterans flew to Washington on Flight III, on the third trip of perhaps as many as six sponsored by Big Sky Honor Flight Montana. This third flight left early Sunday, April 21, under a tight, crisp, almost a typical military style schedule, from the moment of takeoff set for about 7:30 a.m. so that the short two-day trip could accomplish its objectives.
The schedule requested the veterans arrive at the Billings airport at 5:45 a.m., harkening back to the reveille every veteran knows too well, although this time thankfully without the bugle!
The few hours after arrival and before takeoff kindled another long ago memory: a made and ready breakfast (at least it wasn’t called chow!) an egg croissant sandwich, fruit juice and coffee, as the assembled veterans, many with escorts, “chowed down” and then waited. Some things never change.
Loading everyone and everything required time and effort and even required de-icing the aircraft’s wings so that takeoff in a light rainy mist nearly an hour later at 8:25 a.m. was smooth and uneventful, leading again to another most often asked question in any veteran’s history: What’s next?
When the Sun Country 737 touched down at Washington’s Dulles International only about 10 minutes later than the 1:15 p.m. scheduled arrival time, the weather was clear, cool and with no rain.
For many Montana veterans, another adventure began, another internal one, in a sense a father to the “active service” draft notice they had perhaps long ago accepted, and then perhaps deeply buried, too, in order to just forget it. For some the “adventure” wasn’t easy – by no means a walk in the park! Struggling on and off buses into chairs and onto the arms of guides, medical and otherwise, they came to see – for some a last time perhaps – and reflect on why those monuments, built by a still grateful country which their service had inspired and then created for them, still really meant something worth their invaluable lasting effort. Yet, that the trip did mean something only they knew, could know and only they could or would say.
The unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question: Are the memorials and monuments a just reward and payment for the sacrifice of so many? Another question: Is a monument to sacrifice a just reward to that sacrifice? To those who were asked – were told “to do” – are these monuments built to honor those who would never see them enough?
For so many, now, did this late, perhaps last trip to pay homage to monuments, shrines and memorials commemorating at last the great testing of a belief and a resolve to fight to protect everyone’s right to keep our rights, seem reward enough?
The shrines they – we – came to see, named for the bitterest battles veterans know only too well, are rightly “monuments”: the lasting epitaph and eternal commemoration – marking events now too rapidly receding, which may account for the poignancy this trip raised for so many veterans.
Perhaps this special trip did bring closure to all those who came through the harrowing, threatening, miserable experiences that deadly combat inflicts on any soldier or sailor – experiences they handled with courage, fortitude and faith that said somehow they would get through this.
This Honor Flight has become a kind of resolution accomplishing closure to a receding past. These words express gratitude and appreciation for extraordinary services receding soon to the pages of our history books.
To contribute to additional “Big Sky Honor Flights.” Contact www.bigskyhonorflight.org.
Navy veteran Robert Lubbers of Billings is one six World War II veterans from his family. One other surviving brother, John, made an Honor Flight from their home state of Wisconsin on April 27.