King for a Day

Monday, April 14, 2014
Keith Lerum, left, Walt Sehnert, Plainview friends, Kindergarten, Fort Sill, Korea in 1952; center, the Korean War Memorial; right, Keith Lerum and Walt Sehnert, in Korea in 1952. (Courtesy photos)

Sometime, back in January our son, Matt, sent me some information, with the note, "This looks like something you should take part in."

What Matt had sent was information and an application for a One Day Trip to Washington for Veterans of the Korean War, to give some 460 Korean Vets a chance to see the War Memorials, which had been created in recent years in the area around our Nation's Capitol -- the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Wall, the Iwo Jima (Marines) Memorial, and of course the Korean War Memorial, as well as the Lincoln Memorial and some of the other older Washington attractions. It was to be an all-expense paid trip for Veterans, paid for by the generous contributions of an impressive list of individual and corporate donors.

I had seen something about that trip, but had not bothered to send for the forms necessary to be on the list to make such a trip. (Later, I found that this was the case with many, even most of the veterans that took the trip to Washington -- sons and daughters had pushed their parent to get on the ball and apply.) I'm glad they did.

In November 1952, when our troop ship pulled into the harbor at Seattle on our return from Korea, there was a huge sign to greet us, "Welcome to the Best Damn Fighting Men in the World." I thought that was pretty neat, though I certainly did not deserve that accolade. I spent my two years in the Army baking bread, at Fort Sill and later, in Korea, warm and dry. But many on our ship had seen hard fighting, and had acquitted themselves with distinction.

I was mustered out of the Army at Camp Carson (later Fort Carson). There were no brass bands, no parades, no crowds thanking me for serving my Country. Jean had come to Colorado Springs to take me home. That was enough. I found that this was the reaction of the other Korean Vets. We were just glad to be home and able to get on with our lives. Apparently, there were others who thought the Korean Vets, even after 65 years, needed a proper homecoming celebration. What we got was above and beyond anything we could have imagined.

The banquet in our honor on Monday night was exceptional. There were 1,500 people in attendance -- Military men, families, and high powered celebrities, ie; The Governor, Mayor of Omaha, former Congressmen, the South Korean Ambassador to name a few. All were lavish with their praises, leaving most of us humbled, if not quite embarrassed. One of the most moving of the speeches came from a lady, Korean by birth, but one who had been adopted by a GI, and brought up as an American. As an adult, her GI father arranged for her to return to Korea and reunite with her Korean family -- her mother and three sisters. A satisfying reunion; she was pleased that her Korean family had survived, and prospered in the new South Korea. She was reduced to tears as she told us, "Without your service to our country, South Korea would be just like North Korea and my family would have had no chance. God Bless You All!"

Besides Denzel O'Dea and Wayne Bryant of McCook, I got a chance to travel and reconnect with old friends from the Plainview area. Our day started early, like 1 a.m. Tuesday morning. On landing in Washington we were greeted by perhaps 200 people, uniformed military men and civilians, all applauding as we entered to terminal. We felt like visiting dignitaries. As with the entire trip, everything was wonderfully organized. We learned later that an amazing couple, Bill and Evonne Williams were the long-time instigators for the Honor flights out of Nebraska. Name tags were color coded, making it easy for the volunteers to always direct us to the right bus. Perhaps the only damper on our otherwise perfect Washington tour was the weather, a mixture of light rain and snow, and moderate cold. But we were provided with plastic ponchos, so we were able to make our tour in relative comfort.

At the Korean Memorial, a platoon on patrol fills the space of a half football field. The statues are maybe 150% of life size. The reaction of one of the fellows walking with me was, "That is just too real, even to the snow on the ponchos. It brings back the memory of just how cold those patrols were that winter." At the Korean Memorial we got in on a medal awards ceremony, and Nebraska Senator Mike Johanns was on hand to greet us as we got off the bus.

On the plane ride home we were fortunate to sit with one of the organizers of the Honor Flight. He filled us in on some of the details of the trip. They had lined up literally hundreds of volunteers, guardians who assisted with wheel chairs, oxygen, walkers and the like, and were on hand to point out defects in a sidewalk, a curb, or step, and to offer help if needed. Were it not for those kind souls the trip would have been impossible for many, perhaps most, of our group.

We were told about one of the sponsors of our trip, Bill Grewcock, a former executive with the Peter Kiewit Company, and a fellow I had lived with at the Brown Palace Co-op at UNL all those years ago. At a planning meeting Bill was on hand when they were to book the charter planes -- the tab, over $300,000 for the three planes. "Hell, exploded Bill, "I didn't want to buy the damn things, I just wanted to use them." When he was assured that this was the low bid, Bill sat down and wrote out a check for $100,000, completing the amount needed for the planes.

Our trip planner told us, during the flight home, that we would be surprised when we got to Omaha. We were herded into the secured disembarking area and all of us were awarded the Korean War Medal. Sure enough! That was a nice surprise. But we hadn't seen anything yet.

When we were finally released from our medal ceremony we headed into the long wide concourse outside the secured area. We could see flags and quite a few people and could hear music. When we reached that area we were greeted with cheers, band music, and hand-shakes -- "Thank you for your service. God BlessYou," over and over. That lasted more than an hour, till the last man passed through that gauntlet -- -(our group moved pretty slow.)

Our flights from Washington had been delayed for almost two hours, while they de-iced the planes. That made our arrival in Omaha late, and it was near midnight when we finally got back to our motel. Imagine -- even at that late hour, an estimated 5,000 people stayed to meet us -- high military officers and men from Offut Air Base, ROTC units, Boy Scouts, Children from St. Mary's School, more than 50 members of a Motorcycle Club, the Korean Ambassador and a quartet of Korean women in native dress, and oh, so many family, friends, and sweethearts. They crowded both sides of that wide concourse, with just a path between for us to make our way. Everyone, it seemed, had a flag and a hand-written sign welcoming us home. Our hands were sore from shaking, and we felt as if we were running for office. Some of the signs were quite imaginative -- "Welcome Home Love Pistol" was a favorite, and the young lady whose sign read, "Free Hugs" -- she kept pretty busy.

When we finally made our way to the escalator we looked up and saw that the building level overlooking the concourse was packed four or five deep, everyone cheering. At the baggage area, where we left the building there were guardians at every turn, cautioning us to watch bumps in the sidewalk, offering a hand, or wheelchair, and helping us to our buses.

It was almost more than we could comprehend -- and all the Vets that I talked to felt that it was more than was necessary. But, at the same time, I'm sure we all felt that it was a genuine outpouring of affection for American fighting men generally, and we were just representatives for all the American Servicemen, from all the wars. A humbling experience, but nice.

When we finally got back to our motel it was late. It had been a long day, 23 hours, from 1a.m. to midnight, but we were not especially tired -- too keyed up no doubt. Breakfast at the motel was advertised to begin at 6 a.m. and shut down at 9. But, in keeping with the universal cordiality, they kept the dining room open for as long as people kept coming -- till near noon.

As I was checking out I spotted one of the fellows from the tour. He came over to say they were leaving so he could get back to his farm. "Wonderful experience! But, you know", he confided, "It's going to be a little bit hard to go back to being just a plain person again." I understood perfectly what he was expressing.

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