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10-08-09, 11:59 AM #1
WWII veterans visit Washington memorial
WWII veterans visit Washington memorial
by Dawn Slade
Two area WWII veterans were 35,000 feet above the earth on their way to Washington, D.C. when they heard two words they hadn’t heard in over 60 years - “Mail Call!”
Roy Billmark and Roger Eisen went to the Nation’s capital on Sept. 26 and 27, thanks to Freedom Flight, Inc. of St. Cloud.
It is a trip many WWII veterans from around the country are making to visit the impressive World War II Memorial at the Washington Mall.
Needless to say, it was an unexpected surprise when Billmark and Eisen learned they were receiving mail from their loved ones.
Eisen received four letters - one from his son and one from each grandchild.
“My son and I...we’re close, but we’ve never been...,” Eisen started to say with tears in his eyes. “He signed his letter, ‘I love you Dad.’”
“Mine included letters from my daughter Julie’s fourth grade class,” Billmark said. “It got awful quiet in that plane as letters were privately read. And I can guarantee there were many wet cheeks, including mine, and a couple of choked sobs were audible as well.
“It’s hard for me to remember when I’ve been touched like that before. I could feel God’s hand upon my head.”
The trip was made possible thanks to countless donations made to Freedom Flight, Inc.
WWII veterans can apply for the trip (all expenses paid) which includes numerous stops at monuments and memorials.
Korean and Vietnam veterans (any veterans) can apply, but right now priority is being given to WWII veterans due to age.
“They’re getting the WWII veterans out of the way first,” Eisen said. “There are precious few left.”
Billmark, 84 1/2 years of age, and Eisen, who is 85 1/2, said Freedom Flight, Inc. gives priority to any veterans who are terminally ill.
Another moving moment for the veterans was their arrival at Reagan International. The flight crew asked the veterans to remain on board while the other passengers departed.
When the veterans finally deplaned, they were greeted by hundreds of other travelers who formed a receiving line, applauding the veterans and offering handshakes and words of thanks and praise.
“We felt eight feet tall,” Billmark said.
“It broke me up,” Eisen added.
Both men said they were moved by the gesture, but slightly embarrassed at the same time.
WWII veterans are special. “And that’s what they were telling us,” Eisen said.
The sight of the enormous WWII Memorial was a lot to take in for the veterans.
“It’s absolutely breath-taking and beautiful,” Eisen said. “It was so richly done.”
Eisen was also impressed with the size of the WWII Memorial.
Former U.S. Senator Bob Dole, who was instrumental in getting the monument erected, and his wife met with the visiting veterans.
“It was something else,” Eisen noted of meeting Dole. “He’s a sharp guy.”
The two also visited other sites, such as the FDR, Lincoln, Vietnam, and Korean memorials.
For Billmark, one of the sites that really touched him was the grave of Audie Murphy - one of the most highly decorated WWII soldiers - at Arlington Cemetery.
His grave was just like everyone else’s grave site.
“That’s the point,” Billmark noted.
“The changing of the guard at Arlington was absolutely fantastic,” Eisen added.
Eisen enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps right out of high school.
“I was afraid Japan and Germany were going to attack us,” Eisen said.
“I told my mother they’re going to invade our country and bomb us. I’ve got to join. I had a hard time convincing her I was going to join.”
Later, Eisen told just how he “bought” his way to enlistment.
If you didn’t enlist, you’d get “inducted” (aka drafted) and put into whichever branch of the service needed you.
Eisen wanted to be in the Marines.
When he and a buddy approached a Marines recruiting sergeant, the recruiter told him they’d have to meet him at the Seventh Street Bar in St. Paul and buy him a drink and a jug of booze.
The naive teenagers were getting “played” by the recruiter, but it worked.
“The next day we were Marines!” Eisen said.
“I had no fear of death,” Eisen recalled. “I went into it with the idea that I probably wouldn’t make it home. I just did my job.”
With marked sadness, he added, “I often wonder why I made it and my friends didn’t.”
Billmark quit high school so he could work for the Milwaukee Railroad system.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Billmark said he was mad. So when he hit 18, he joined the Merchant Marines.
“We had to win that war,” Billmark said.
The Merchant Marines back then were denied the GI Bill and Billmark said, “I wasn’t considered a vet until the 1980s.”
“We only drew pay when we signed on with a ship,” Billmark noted. “We came home to nothing.”
“That was a real uphill battle for you guys,” Eisen said to his travel mate.
“Your missions were always dangerous because your ships weren’t very well armor plated,” Eisen said.
“I have no regrets,” Billmark offered.
Freedom Flight, Inc.
Individuals and businesses support Freedom Flight, Inc. (a non-profit organization) through donations. It’s known for the area’s POW/MIA hot air balloon that can be seen at events throughout the state.
The two veterans couldn’t thank Freedom Flight, Inc. and its director/founder, Dr. James R. Tuorila, enough.
“What the Freedom Flight did for us...” Billmark said. “The fact that they made it available.”
“They were such gracious hosts,” Eisen said of Dr. Tuorila and his wife. “It was a trip of a lifetime for me.”
Eisen and Billmark recommend other veterans contact Freedom Flight, Inc. and apply for the trip.
For more information, call 1-320-252-7208 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY LATE HUSBAND, SSgt Roger A. Alfano, USMC
ONE PROUD MARINE
Once a Marine...Always a Marine
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