It was the trip of a lifetime, they said. It lasted a day, but the memories will be etched in their minds forever. For John Caldwell, Duane Kline, John Dunlap and Leonard “Flash” Arndt, it was a gift of appreciation and thanks for their service as World War II veterans.
“We saw a whole lot of memorials to World War II that made our time over there seem like it should be,” Caldwell said. “In other words, we were fighting for freedom.”
The Honor Air trip May 14, sponsored and paid for by the Newton-Conover Rotary Club, honored the four area World War II veterans by sending them to see the memorial built in their honor.
A full agenda, police escort and bus tour assured they did a lot more.
Newton-Conover Rotarian (Army Col.-ret.) Jack McCaskill, of Newton, served as leader for the veterans, which included John Caldwell, 87, Duane Kline, 92, and John Dunlap, 87, all from Newton, and Leonard “Flash” Arndt, 89, of Hickory.
Their day began in Newton before 5 a.m. and concluded where they started at 10:30 p.m. In the course of one day, they rode to Asheville, boarded a plane, flew to Washington, D.C., boarded a bus, visited the WWII Memorial, Korean and Iwa Jima Memorials, visited the Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington National Cemetery, boarded the bus for Reagan National Airport for Asheville, and then wearily climbed into a van and headed home.
Weary? Maybe just a little bit physically, even for their leader, McCaskill, 65.
“I like traveling with that group because I was the youngest,” he said, smiling.
McCaskill said it was a long, but great day and a great group.
“Everyone hung in there and no one got sick or had any problems,” he said. “Not on my watch.”
The men traveled by van to Asheville, boarded a plane with other veterans, and flew to Washington.
There were 144 veterans on the flight, in addition to guardians, or leaders, and two medics and one doctor, and medical supplies.
For McCaskill, it was his second Honor Air trip and most likely his last.
“This was the 19th Honor Air flight from western North Carolina, and the last one,” he said. “There aren’t many World War II vets left — we lose more each year.”
This was John Dunlap’s first trip to Washington.
“I was surprised at the interest so many people showed,” Dunlap said. “There have been so many wars since then and a bunch of Memorial Days. We’re all dying off.”
Dunlap, who served in the Army 104th Infantry, said “It’s been 65 years — so long ago I thought people forgot about World War II.”
For John Caldwell, the Honor Air trip was one of his greatest experiences and more than he expected. He admitted he thought they’d see a “couple of old buildings.”
Caldwell is grateful to Rotary for the trip, but doesn’t know how he was picked.
“I received a letter from Rotary — they said they would be glad for me to go,” Caldwell said. “So, I signed up to go, and I went.”
One of the most meaningful experiences for Caldwell was the return trip and walking through the Asheville airport terminal, which was lined with 1,300 men, women and children.
“Young, middle-age and old — they hugged us, greeted us and told us they appreciated the work we did,” Caldwell said. “It made you think twice about things that happened over there.”
Caldwell served in the Army’s Ranger Outfit. On D-Day, June 6, 1944 — the day the Allies invaded Europe — Caldwell’s unit went ashore on Normandy.
“It was terrible, terrible, terrible,” he said. “Those rascals were sitting in pill boxes picking us off. I lost friends.”
For Caldwell, there was a sense of closure, or a sense of well-being, at the end of the day.
“I think the younger generation really accepted what went on in World War II and know now it was the best thing that happened,” he said. “I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, and I thank Rotary for taking me up there.”
Besides, he added, “I got a nice jacket out of it.”
McCaskill, too, was moved by the people that lined the entire length of the Asheville airport.
“That blew the guys away,” he said. “What particularly touched them were the children. They always thought children can’t relate to them, the war.”
The Honor Air trip is a win-win situation and typical of what Rotary does, McCaskill said. The Honor Air trip recognizes the veterans in our community and provides a service, a means, for them to see the memorials in Washington they might not have seen, he said.
McCaskill, retired from the Army, said “he just likes doing it.”
“It gives me a real appreciation for that I think is the greatest generation,” he said.
“The country was behind them and the war.”
Also, it’s important we observe Memorial Day to recognize those that gave their all and to appreciate the liberties we have as a result of those in service.
Is Memorial Day observed enough?
“No, there’s more focus on hot dogs and a day off than it’s true meaning. A lot of tradition we still have is fostered by the older generation,” McCaskill said. “Twenty to 30 years from now, will there be a Memorial Day?”
McCaskill believes it’s proper to recognize those men and women that served and died for our nation.
“In Arlington Cemetery, more than 300,000 veterans are buried there,” he said. “The sheer magnitude and the history takes you over.”
The Honor Air trip was a fitting tribute to John Dunlap, Duane Kline, John Caldwell and Leonard “Flash” Arndt, as well as to Jack McCaskill.
For McCaskill, though, the day was all about the four veterans in his watch.
“It was a fitting tribute to these vets, to get them there to see it is very meaningful,” he said, “especially at this later stage of their life.”