When the Central Prairie Honor Flight recipients landed at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport Thursday, more than 100 people were waiting to greet the returning World War II veterans.
The crowd clapped, cheered, and thanked the honor flight recipients while they walked down the sloping terminal — from the security station to the front door. Some of the people in the crowd were family and friends, most people were strangers who wanted to show their appreciation for the veterans’ service.
It was one of two especially moving moments on 85-year-old Hillsboro resident Norman Mueller’s honor flight experience.
The former soldiers received praise on the streets of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore during the trip. Keyed in by the veterans’ bright red Honor Flight T-shirts, strangers would approach the veterans and thank them for protecting the country.
“That generation just did what they had to do,” Mueller’s daughter Jo O’Dell said. “When they came back, they didn’t even want any recognition; they just went about their business.”
When Mueller’s tour with the Marine 3rd Armored Amphibian Battalion was over in 1946, he returned to Canada to help get his father’s business, Cardie Oil, off the ground. In the more than 50 years since his service, O’Dell said her father has refrained from talking about his time fighting at Peleliu and Okinawa.
However, Mueller did meet for reunions with the 3rd Armored Amphibian Battalion regularly, until the number of surviving veterans dwindled and travel became too difficult for some of them.
The Honor Flight Program began in Ohio in 2005 to allow World War II veterans, despite their physical condition, to see the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., Free of charge, World War II, and any veterans who are terminally ill, are flown to the capitol. They are then transported by bus to each of the Washington memorials.
Mueller applied for the program and was accepted. O’Dell accompanied Mueller as his guardian. He and a group of about 99 World War II veterans saw Arlington National Cemetery, the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, and the Iwo Jima Memorial April 20 in Washington, D.C.
Thursday, Mueller and the other Marines on the trip went to Quantico, Va., to the Marine Corps Museum and Fort McHenry.
Linked by a common service, the veterans immediately connected.
“They all wanted to talk about where they had been and where they were from,” O’Dell said.
The memories of youth in the Marines started to flow for Mueller as the trip continued.
There are few people in the world that know what Marine Corps is all about, and the sacrifices that we take. I knew when I was a late teen-ager that I wanted to follow in your footsteps, to be a part of something that made a difference. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your service in the Marine Corps. I could only begin to imagine what it was like back then. I thank you for opening up to me about those hard times. I thank you for making me the man I am today. Because of you I am who I am today. I love you so much Grandpa, thank you again for your service. Semper Fi.
Mueller was drafted when he was 18 years old in 1943. He tried to enlist in the Navy but there was no opening. He remembers he heard speeches from Army and Marine Corps representatives at Fort Leavenworth. The Marine representative talked to the group of soldiers about the toughness of the Marines as a fighting unit.
Mueller raised his hand to sign up for the Marines, thinking the speech was boasting.
“It can’t be that tough,” Mueller said. “I found out different at boot camp.”
Mueller also told O’Dell a story he had never previously shared with his family, an example of the hardships and sacrifices of the Marines in the Pacific.
While they were both on night watch on Peleliu, Mueller conversed with a fellow Marine. The young man told Mueller about his wife in California and his plans after the war. The next night on maneuvers, Mueller’s comrade was killed. Mueller fought for three years during World War II. When he returned home, he signed up for the Marine Reserves. He later served in Korea.
While Mueller was moved by the greeting he received at the Wichita Airport and by the salute he received from uniformed Navy men at Arlington National Cemetery, Mueller’s eyes watered when he recalled the mail call on the plane back to Wichita.
As a surprise, the Honor Flight organizers asked family members to write letters to veterans thanking them for their service.
Honor Flight organizers called out his name, while they walked down the aisle of the plane, and passed Mueller the bundle of letters written by his children and grandchildren.
I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your service during World War II. You and your generation saved our country and then came back from war and built this country into what it is today, just like you built Cardie Oil into a hugely successful business. I am so blessed and honored to get to go on this trip with you. I love you more than you will ever know, always and forever.