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Flight of a lifetime

Published 5/28/2011 in Special Sections

When U.S. war veteran Gordon Allen arrived home after more than two years overseas in the South Pacific — 240 of those days on a boat at sea — the U.S. Marine had an ironic task to complete. He had to register for the draft.

Allen, who served in World War II with the 4th Marine Regiment, was only 17 when he enlisted in 1943, nearly two years after America was thrust into the world conflict when Japanese carrier-borne aircraft bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Because of his age, Allen said the U.S. government required that his parents give their formal consent before he could join the Armed Forces.

The 85-year-old World War II veteran from Garden City admitted that, at the time, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

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Courtesy photo/Gordon Allen, a World War II veteran, sits on a bench at the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Courtesy photo/Gordon Allen, a World War II veteran, sits on a bench at the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

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Shajia Ahmad/Telegram Visitors from the Garden City Honor Flight returned to the National World War II Memorial at night on their two-day excursion.

Shajia Ahmad/Telegram Visitors from the Garden City Honor Flight returned to the National World War II Memorial at night on their two-day excursion.

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Shajia Ahmad/Telegram Honor Flight visitors gather in between visits to memorial museums in Washington, D.C.

Shajia Ahmad/Telegram Honor Flight visitors gather in between visits to memorial museums in Washington, D.C.

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Shajia Ahmad/Telegram Garden City Honor Flight veterans and guardians talk near a war memorial in Washington D.C.

Shajia Ahmad/Telegram Garden City Honor Flight veterans and guardians talk near a war memorial in Washington D.C.

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Brad Nading/Telegram
Mike Hoffman, center, is greeted by his daughter, Deb Mader, as he returns to Garden City in April from the Honor Flight at Garden City Regional Airport.

Brad Nading/Telegram Mike Hoffman, center, is greeted by his daughter, Deb Mader, as he returns to Garden City in April from the Honor Flight at Garden City Regional Airport.

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Brad Nading/Telegram
Hundreds of area residents line the tarmack holding American flags at Garden City Regional Airport April 20 as participants of the Honor Flight return to Garden City after their trip to Washington D.C.

Brad Nading/Telegram Hundreds of area residents line the tarmack holding American flags at Garden City Regional Airport April 20 as participants of the Honor Flight return to Garden City after their trip to Washington D.C.

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Shajia Ahmad/Telegram Visitors look at the Vietnam War memorial wall, including names of lost soldiers from that conflict.

Shajia Ahmad/Telegram Visitors look at the Vietnam War memorial wall, including names of lost soldiers from that conflict.

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Shajia Ahmad/Telegram Garden City Honor Flight veterans discuss their experiences touring war memorials in Washington, D.C.

Shajia Ahmad/Telegram Garden City Honor Flight veterans discuss their experiences touring war memorials in Washington, D.C.

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Courtesy photo/ World War II veterans from the Garden City Honor Flight unfurl a 15-star flag at the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.

Courtesy photo/ World War II veterans from the Garden City Honor Flight unfurl a 15-star flag at the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.

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Shajia Ahmad/Telegram Nearly 100 World War II veterans traveled from Garden City to Washington, D.C., in April to visit the nation's war memorials.

Shajia Ahmad/Telegram Nearly 100 World War II veterans traveled from Garden City to Washington, D.C., in April to visit the nation's war memorials.

"The war was a chance to see something of the world," Allen said. "When I was a kid, we didn't have television. The only pictures of the war were from the newsreels they played at movie theaters. They always had the latest on the action. ... That's what got me fired up."

Every American World War II veteran's story is different.

Many fought against the Axis Powers on continents oceans away, on many Pacific islands along the ocean's expanse, and high in the skies over both land and sea from Europe to Eastern Asia.

Some served on the front lines of combat on many corners of the Earth, while others served as policemen, prison guards, doctors, pilots and nurses both at home and abroad.

Most are men, but some are also women. And those women, and even men, who did not serve during World War II tackled the other war-time challenges on the homefront, running factories and keeping the fires burning at home.

Regardless, one part of the unique stories born from the World War II era is always the same: the sense of patriotism for both country and service.

And those stories are being lost at an alarming rate. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that just more than 2 million of the era's 16 million American service members are still alive today but are lost at about 1,200 per day. In less than a decade and a half, likely less than 60,000 surviving World War II vets will remain.

Veterans aren't always eager to share their stories, for a wide variety of reasons.

Some don't wish to speak about their experiences when they're too traumatic for the human spirit to again endure. Some veterans said they know friends and family would have a hard time understanding or relating to their experiences. And, others agree, many loved ones just plain wouldn't believe tales retold.

But some agreed to talk about their experiences following this past April's Honor Flight, when veterans advocates raised enough money to send nearly 100 World War II veterans, most all from western Kansas, to visit and reflect at the nation's war memorials at the National Mall in Washington D.C., a nation wide effort that took root in southwest Kansas just a couple of years ago.

Allen, who joined this past April's flight, left the shores of California in January 1944 and landed on Guadalcanal in the southwestern Pacific nearly a month later, the site of the first major offensive by Allied forces against Japan in late 1942.

For the next two years, Allen hopped from island to island with his platoon, slept on a folding cot, and at times served in the capacity of a military policeman, which kept him out of front-line combat. Malaria and mosquitoes were the biggest challenges, he said.

"We saw combat at a distance. There were skirmishes, we were shot at and dodged shells, but nothing like the guys in Guam and Okinawa. ... We read everything we could get our hands on. We talked about things back home, too. Our favorite subject was girls," Allen said and laughed.

The end of the war didn't mean getting to come home. Allen spent four months in China, which was first attacked by Japan as early as 1937, before returning to the U.S. in February 1946 at the age of 20. The opportunity to visit with other U.S. Marines at the National Museum of the Marine Corps on the Quantico Marine Corps Base just outside Washington D.C., one stop along the way, was the highlight of the Honor Flight for Allen, he said.

Despite not having very many traumatic experiences, the World War II veteran said he hasn't always felt comfortable sharing them with friends and family over the years.

"People would consider it very personal. Their feelings and fears are there, but they're more likely to share with another veteran. ... Some things people do in the line of duty is nothing you'd want to brag about," he said.

The two-day trip to Washington, D.C., was also a memorable experience for Garden City resident Martin Huschka, 91, a World War II veteran who donated to the Washington, D.C., memorial built in 2005 to honor the men and women who served on all fronts of the war.

Huschka, who served in the 35th Infantry Division during World War II, a formation of the National Guard, still can remember hearing the news of Pearl Harbor on his radio. For 18 months, the national guardsman helped to guard the coast of California after the Japanese invasion before heading to Europe with his division in 1944.

"We never knew where we were going until we were on a ship," Huschka said. "All we knew is that we were going somewhere."

On July 7, 1944, Huschka and his fellow unit members landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day during the Normandy Invasion, the invasion that launched the Allies efforts to take back German-occupied Western Europe.

Huschka said there were times of danger, but he can't quite remember what was going through his head at the time.

"I was never thinking about things. When the bullets start coming, you hit the ground," he said. "I can't remember that I ever got too scared."

The worst experience in Europe, Husckha said, was the Battle of the Bulge, a major German offensive fought over the winter months of 1944 and 1945 through the densely forested Ardennes Mountains region of Wallonia in Belgium.

On New Year's Eve, Huschka, a second lieutenant, said he stomped his feet all night, just to keep them warm. One night, he was called out in the middle of the night, and he still remembers the scenes of men wounded and dead throughout the front lines.

"There are things you don't want to talk about," Huschka said "When you first come home, you think most people won't believe you anyway."

Huschka said the opportunity to visit the World War II memorial and other war memorials with the other veterans in April was especially meaningful for him and a wonderful opportunity. Before the memorial's opening in 2005, Huschka even donated to its establishment to see the structure come to fruition.

"Whoever built that, he must have quite a mind," Huschka said. "It's just too bad it took so long to get built."

Mike Hoffman Jr., a 94-year-old World War II veteran who moved to Garden City in the early 1930s, served like Huschka in the 35th Infantry Division.

Hoffman joined the National Guard when he was 20 and was thrust into the war in December 1940, following the infamous events of Pearl Harbor.

The military policeman also landed on Omaha Beach and was always in danger as he and the men in his unit made their way through war-torn France and Germany. They went as far as the Elbe River in northern Germany, where they waited for the Russians.

In 1945, as World War II was drawing to a close, Nazi Germany was caught between the armies of the western Allies advancing from the west and the Soviet Union advancing from the east. Along the way, piles of leaves often became beds to rest on, the war veteran said.

"You waited 'til you got your orders, and that's where you were headed next," Hoffman said. "We picked up prisoners along the way. ...They were humans just like us. But the (German) SS troops, they had to be shot."

Hoffman credits a celestial angel for keeping him alive once he was honorably discharged on Oct. 7, 1945, and made it safely back home.

The opportunity to visit the memorial built at the national mall was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, he added, and probably his last trip, he admitted, too.

"I was lucky to have two guardians," Hoffman said, referring to his sons Michael and Rodney, who accompanied him on the April trip. "It was amazing, really. Everything we saw was really something."

On the return flight in April, the veterans and guardians passed around a collection up and down the narrow plane aisle, collecting funds for future Honor Flights.

There were no small bills on the top of the white sack, which was inscribed with the following message: "Send a vet! Love Flight #13."

Already, organizers from the Great Bend-based Central Prairie Honor Flight are planning for an early October flight out of Garden City. They've already made a deposit on a charter plane.

All the veterans said they would encourage other World War II veterans to make the trip if they are able. All spoke highly of the opportunity thanks to the dedications and generosity of others.

"It's impressive to me that people honor us," Allen said. "I don't expect it a lot of time. It's almost kind of a bonus."

INFOBOX:

Surviving World War II Vets

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that by 2025, less than 60,000 of today's surviving World War II veterans will remain.

By October 2011 — 1,711,000

By October 2012 — 1,463,000

By October 2013 — 1,237,000

By October 2014 — 1,035,000

By October 2015 — 855,000

By October 2020 — 270,000

By October 2025 — 57,000

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

On the Web

VIDEO OF INTERVIEW WITH GORDON ALLEN

Read These Related Stories

VIDEO: Gordon Allen, WW2 Veteran - 5/29/2011

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