My recent trip to Washington, D.C. as part of Heartland Honor Flight with 92 veterans, both from World War II and the Korean War, and dozens of non-veterans seems to belong in a storybook whenever I think about it.
I was one of the “guardians” whose jobs included “protecting” and “helping” one or two veterans assigned to them for the trip. The organization paired me with Korean War veteran John Atkins, 81, and I sat next to him in the plane. Atkins was sent to Japan at age 17, and a year later to Korea, to participate in the Inchon Landing Operation, a successful amphibious landing that turned a losing war into a winning one for a short time. Soon afterward, he was in the North, until the Chinese troops came and mauled many Americans. He returned a year later.
I went along with the group to find bits and pieces of my childhood in Old Korea — then the poorest of poor nations that had been severely impoverished during Japan’s occupation of Korea between 1905 and 1945. Japan’s surrender to the Allied forces brought moments of joy, but they were not long enough: The Russians entered the northern part of the peninsula led by Kim Il-sung (Kim Jong-un’s grandfather) in early August that year, and American troops a month later — after the Tokyo Bay surrender ceremony on Sept. 2.
For this trip, I had a surprise for everyone on board: mini Hershey bars. My original intention was to share them with the Korean veterans in the spirit of “what comes around, goes around,” but I included World War II veterans as deserving recipients, too, after my German friend, Helga, told me that she and her friends, too, received many Hershey bars from Americans during WWII.
Around 10, at 36,000 feet above the air, the president of Heartland Honor Flight, John Doole, unexpectedly introduced me to the passengers, saying that I was 9 years old during the Korean War and that I had something “special” for the veterans.
My impromptu speech went like this: “This trip to Washington, D.C., is as important for me as it is for you veterans. Some Korean veterans among you might have seen me in July 1950, when you entered my hometown of Pusan on military trucks. The whole street was lined with schoolchildren and adults, and when you passed us we shouted, waving American flags, “Victory, U.S.A.! Victory, U.S.A.!” It was the first American slogan we learned for the occasion. …
“Our parents and teachers persistently told us to show our respect to any American soldier we see on the street, because you’ve come from very far away, leaving behind your home, family and friends. And as we bowed to you, you reached into your pockets and produced candy, including Hershey bars. I can never forget the taste of those Hershey bars. … So please have some chocolates and accept my sincere ‘Thank you’ once more.”
At the airport in Washington, D.C., a crowd waited, and as the veterans passed them, they said, “Thank you veterans for your service.” Outside, we were divided into five buses. I was in the Red Bus, the first of all five buses. Soon, we were snaking through the traffic escorted by two siren-wailing/light-flashing police cars as if we were dignitaries.
Within minutes, we arrived at the World War II memorial. I soon discovered that our group was among others that brought veterans to the monument, each with their distinctive uniforms and signs.
One group did more than just take photos. Their heads bent, they showed reverence to their fallen comrades, while a man sang the national anthem in his velvety tenor voice, followed by taps played by a female trumpeter.
This solemn ground has become a place to remember who delivered us freedom, as well as a meeting place for many veterans and civilians alike. Each inscribed granite panel talked about who served their country at the cost of their precious life. How many times the taps had echoed through those walls, the arches, the fountains and the sprawling fields? How many prayers had been said in thanksgiving for the freedom we indulge today?
On the way out, a big surprise awaited us: Our own former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole was waiting for the veterans! He seemed alert and well, except for the usual signs of the aging. A veteran in our team introduced me, and I boldly asked, “Mr. Dole, would you like to have a Hershey bar?” I then told him why I brought them. He smiled and said to the man next to him, “Get me one!” The man picked one up from the container I was holding, removed the wrapper and handed it to Mr. Dole. He took it and put it in his mouth. Cameras flashed.
At the Korean War Memorial, the Korean War veterans held a photo session, and one of them suggested that I should take picture with them. Gladly, gentlemen!
On the return flight, my mind drifted. I am in a heaven-bound Red Bus filled with Korean veterans. Instead of police cars, winged angels are escorting us, singing Mozart’s “Alleluia” in their angelic voices. The heaven’s gate opens before us, and I see St. Peter standing in majestic golden light.
I will offer him a Hershey bar, too!
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history.