Honor flight an emotional experience for WWII vet
It’s a long trip from Arnold Luoma’s white stucco Baxter home to the historic monuments of Washington, D.C., — a journey that could be daunting for anyone, much less an 89-year-old World War II vet.
The June 8 Honor Flight that took about 80 World War II veterans from Duluth to Washington, D.C., in about 16 hours was a tiring experience for Luoma, but one that he wouldn’t have traded for the world.
The receptions he and his World War II colleagues received at the Reagan National and Duluth airports were as moving as seeing the monuments, Luoma said. The Baxter man expressed emotion as he recalled the bands, the flags and the greetings from politicians, past and present.
“The way they treated us ... like we were royalty,” he recalled.
Karin Swor of the Duluth-based Honor Flight Northland said that when the veterans arrived at Reagan National Airport an announcement was made noting their arrival and the World War II vets walked past a large group of people who shook their hands and voiced their thanks to them. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., was at the Washington, D.C., area airport to greet the Minnesota contingent when the veterans arrived.
“This was my sixth trip and I know it’s coming and I still cried when I got off (the plane),” Swor said.
A key booster of the National World War II memorial, which was completed in 2004, former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, R-Kanas, shook Luoma’s hand at the memorial.
Luoma shared with the 1996 Republican presidential candidate that he was “sick and tired of Congress nowadays.” He received no argument from the 89-year-old Dole, who is also a World War II veteran.
“Sen. Robert Dole tries to be there (at the World War II monument) on Saturdays,” she said. “He’s getting very frail. He’s in a wheelchair.”
The National World War II Memorial honors the service of 16 million members of the U.S. armed forces who served in that war.
When they returned to Duluth late that night, Swor said there were bagpipes and drum and bugle corps and police fire escorts with their lights flashing.
While in the nation’s capitol, the 79 World War II veterans and four Korean War veterans also saw the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery and Lincoln Memorial and the memorials for the Vietnam and Korean wars, among other historical sites. The veterans were accompanied by an almost equal number of guardians who assisted them and made sure they stayed hydrated throughout the long day.
Swor said she was particularly grateful for the four Gold Cross Ambulance paramedics who helped veterans on the flight and tours.
A member of the Honor Flight Northland board of directors, Swor’s interest in the project can be traced to the World War II service of her late father in the U.S. Navy.
“My dad was a Word War II vet and was very involved in the veterans’ community here in Duluth,” she said. “He wanted to go (to Washington, D.C.) and I was never able to take him there.”
Primarily organized to give World War II veterans a chance to see the World War II memorial Swor said individual Honor Flight groups are expanding that mission to transporting Korean and Vietnam veterans to Washington, D.C.
“Most of our World War II vets have gone, that are able to,” she said. “We would like to continue on.”
The June 8 honor flight was a long day for Luoma. He left Baxter at 2 a.m. in the morning, riding with his daughter to Duluth. The plane left about 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. and didn’t return until 10:30 p.m.
The Honor Flights are free for the veterans, Swor said. The cost of a flight is about $90,000. The sponsoring organization in Duluth, Honor Flight Northland, is made up entirely of volunteers.
Luoma said many Americans don’t realize how differently World War II could have turned out.
“They don’t understand how close we came to losing that war,” he said.
That early uncertainty about the outcome of the war was, in part, because the U.S. was ill prepared to battle in 1941, he said. He said the use of air power and the atomic bomb were among the keys to victory.
As a member of a combat unit \89th Division of the U.S. Army Luoma came in as part of a post-D-Day wave of fresh soldiers.
“I was a replacement for all the losses they had,” he said.
In addition to German soldiers, Luoma remembers the cold as an adversary. There were few opportunities to dry out or warm up. Showers were out of the question.
“When you think of it, you wonder how we ever survived,” he said.
U.S. air power, he said was a tremendous help to soldiers on the ground.
“They bombed those cities to rubble,” he recalled. “The sky was so black (with planes) you couldn’t see.”
Wars are different now, he said, referring to situations when soldiers have to be mindful to minimize the impact on nearby civilians. The attitude during World War II, he said, was that the U.S. Army was coming through and bystanders had better get out of the way.
“I think we’re all done winning wars,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
He stayed in the service until May of 1946 and was scheduled to head to the Pacific Theater until Japan surrendered in 1945.
“If it hadn’t been for that Atomic bomb we would have lost,” he said.
After the war he returned to his hometown of Cloquet where he worked at the Potlatch plant for 32 years. Moving to Brainerd about 36 years ago he worked an additonal 10 years at Brainerd’s Potlatch plant. He and his wife, Jennie, raised three children. One son, a Vietnam veteran lives in Monroe, Wash., a daughter lives in Brainerd and a second son passed away earlier.
After he left Potlatch, Luoma worked part-time for H & R Block during tax time.
Still able to drive and get around without assistance, Luoma was in better shape than many of the other World War II veterans. He said some of them were in wheelchairs or on oxygen.
“I never smoked. I never drank and I never ran with women who did,” Luoma said.
He and his wife celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary on June 17.