Hoosier heroes

PLAINFIELD — There are war memorials built of stone along and near the National Mall in Washington. They were created to honor the thousands of who put their lives on hold or lost them while fighting for freedom and peace. These symbols serve as eternal reminders of a country’s gratitude; small gestures in the wake of such large sacrifice.

Despite the years he spent serving in the U.S. Navy and Air Force during World War II and the Korean War, Richard Johnson of Charlottesville had never seen these memorials.

Saturday, he got the chance when he and other veterans visited the nation’s capital on the Indy Honor Flight.

Each year, the Honor Flight arranges for the transportation of veterans of World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War to visit the memorials dedicated to their service. Indy Honor Flight is part of a national network of such flights and serves as one of the more than 100 flight hubs across the country.

Johnson said the trip last weekend was the one time he would allow his grandson, Joe Perkins of Greenfield, to push him around in a wheelchair. They rolled and strolled through the National World War II Memorial, saw the Korean War Memorial and viewed the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

It was a long day that culminated with one final surprise for the veterans at Plainfield High School.

They were greeted by the sounds of bagpipes and a hallway lined with young people carrying American flags.

But it was the school’s gymnasium that held the biggest shock: A crowd of nearly 5,000 gathered to thank the former fighters in a reception they might not have received when they returned from war years ago.

As his grandson wheeled him onto the gym floor, Johnson gazed around in amazement, a wide grin spreading across his face. He saw the bleachers packed with people, read the signs they carried and heard the cheers they shouted his way. Taking it all in, he lifted a white handkerchief up to his cheek and wiped away tears.

The words were hard to come by.

“Wow,” he said to himself.

Karen Sexton of Greenfield, a relative of Johnson’s, said she was honored to be part of a homecoming reception she believes the veterans deserved decades ago.

“I’m glad we’ve all learned our lesson,” she said.

‘These guys deserve this’

Indianapolis is home to one of 140 hubs of the National Honor Flight Network across the United States. Throughout the year, the nonprofit raises money to fly the veterans to the nation’s capital. The flights are free for the veterans, and they each can bring a companion for the trip.

Those who don’t have someone to accompany them are partnered up with a willing volunteer.

Once the veterans arrive, they tour Washington by bus, visiting each of the war memorials, the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery to watch a changing of the guard before returning to Indiana.

Usually, about 70 veterans are taken on the Indy Honor Flight each year, organizer and Greenfield resident Jack Grose said. This year, however, nearly 200 veterans took part in the flight to mark the 10th year for the Indianapolis trip.

“These guys deserve this,” Grose said. “They went and did a horrible job and saved the world, and they just came home and went back to work without any fanfare.”

Several Hancock County-area residents were among this year’s participants.

Johnson started his military career when he was 17. He joined the Navy in 1946. He said a boyhood interest in pirates made him want to become a sailor.

He was immediately stationed in the South Pacific and was assigned to be a cook. He took the job of keeping the other men well-fed seriously, he said.

Johnson later enlisted in the Air Force. He continued to work as a cook and was discharged in 1950, missing the start of the Korean War by only five days, he said.

‘I was blessed’

Upon his discharge, Johnson never received several medals and accolades he had earned, including the World War II Victory Medal, the Asian Campaign Medal and the Philippine Liberation medal.

Saturday night, in front of the crowd of thousands, Perkins arranged for his grandfather to finally receive those honors.

Lawson “Bill” Alexander of Charlottesville also attended. He served with the Army in Korea from 1951-53. He was drafted at the age of 19, he said, and often transported ammunition across the war-zone before becoming a clerk for his unit.

“I was blessed,” he said of his time overseas. “I didn’t have to do anything too straining, but I’m proud that I was able to serve.”

Harold Jarrett of Greenfield served with the Navy in the South Pacific from 1942-45. He was stationed on a small aircraft carrier, he said.

After the war, he received a job at Naval Avionics in Indianapolis, working on gun and bomber sights until his retirement 30 years later.

“Between my time there and in the Navy, it was over 36-and-a-half years of service,” he said.

Luther Spangler, a Fountaintown native now living in Shelbyville, was a B-29 gunner with the Army Air Corps in the Pacific during World War II. He was partnered with former Greenfield Fire Chief Lewis McQueen for the Honor Flight.

McQueen said he signed up to be an Honor Flight volunteer in memory of his father-in-law, a World War II veteran who died several years ago without ever having visited Washington.

“I think all veterans deserve to be recognized,” McQueen said. “If they hadn’t done what they did, this country would not be what it is. They have earned this recognition.”

Surprise ending

The homecoming celebration at the end of the trip this year was kept a secret from the veterans.

The festivities started on the plane ride home, when each veteran was given an envelope filled with 50 to 75 letters — some from loved ones, some from strangers — thanking them for their service, Grose said.

For years, the homecoming celebration was conducted at the Indianapolis International Airport, so the crowds could meet the veterans immediately after they get off the plane.

But as it gained popularity, the reception grew exponentially, forcing organizers to move to nearby Plainfield High School, Grose said.

“We almost were kicked out of the airport last year because we filled the food court to capacity,” he said.

Family members, fellow veterans and those wishing to show their patriotism began arriving at the high school about two hours before the first plane was scheduled to land Saturday. Slowly, Plainfield’s gymnasium filled with thousands holding signs, waving flags and dressed in red, white and blue.

As they were brought into the gym, the veterans were met with cheers and applause from the crowd. They shook hands with dignitaries and received a smooch on each cheek from “the kissing girls,” as organizers call them, who dress in period clothing for the event.

Stacy Valdes of Greenfield, who volunteers for the Honor Flight, said the organization has a goal to ensure that every World War II, Vietnam and Korean veteran gets a chance to visit the memorials in Washington.

She discusses the flight with every veteran she meets, encouraging them to fill out an application for the program.

“It is so important that they get this opportunity,” she said. “They saved our world, and we’ve forgotten what that means.”

Staff writer Kristy Deer contributed to this story.

Pull Quote

“It is so important that they get this opportunity. They saved our world, and we’ve forgotten what that means.”

Stacy Valdes, Indy Honor Flight volunteer and Greenfield resident, on honoring World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans

By the numbers

2015 Indy Honor Flight participants: 

120 World War II veterans

69 Korean War veterans

1 Vietnam War veteran 

How to sign up

Veterans interested in taking the Honor Flight can visit the Indy Honor Flight website at indyhonorflight.com to download an application. 

The organization defines eligible veterans as anyone, male or female, who served actively in any location during the follow years: 

  • World War II: Dec. 7, 1941, to Dec. 31, 1946 
  • Korean War: June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953
  • Vietnam War: Feb. 28, 1961, to May 7, 1975

Those wishing to participate as a guardian or a volunteer also can download an applications from the Indy Honor Flight website.

Author photo
Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.