Special Report: They Were Soldiers

It isn’t often Evansville Regional Airport sees a full terminal before the sun comes up.


This Saturday in mid-October is going to be a long day. But if the pink and purple hues rising over the runway are any indication, it’s going to be a good day, too.


Excitement can overwhelm, and emotion can bring a soldier to tears. The soldiers dressed in blue, and their guardians in yellow, are about to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime visit to our nation’s capital.


They fought for freedom and won, but it is their brothers and sisters in arms who didn’t come back, they remember most on this trip.


About 640 WWII veterans die each day, so our time to express thanks to the brave men and women is running out. The Honor Flight of Southern Indiana does a lot more than just thanks.


The seventh flight is about to take off just after 8 a.m. The 80 warriors and their guardians are glad to be on board. They’re strapping in for an hour-and-a-half American Airlines flight to Washington D.C.


They’re three wide and shoulder to shoulder. The bond they have between each other seems as unbreakable as the love for their country.


As they look down from 30,000 feet, their minds wonder what lies ahead, like it did all those years ago. It has been awhile since they were asked to go somewhere they’ve never been to do something they’ve never done.


With cowbells clanging, banners waiving, and hands shaking, their welcome at Reagan National Airport, where perfect strangers are so perfectly grateful, makes this trip worth their while.


After a short bus ride around the National Mall, they arrive at the WWII memorial as heroes.


“I was in the 712th in Korea and I was there for a year,” Lee Werner says. “It was about the same as Evansville: cold in the winter and hot in the summer.”


He worked on the railroad, helping to move guns and ammo, food and supplies, troops to the front, and the dead back home. Home is place he missed more with each passing day.


“I used to go to the mess hall and I’d see that Servel refrigerator and remind me of home,” Werner smiles, “because they made them here in town.”


Where they are now, in the shadow of Lincoln, is hallowed ground. Best taken in with father and son.


“We hear the saying freedom isn’t free, and we know it isn’t because the men and women that we see in all these memorials symbolize that.”


Jim Werner pushes his dad around in a wheelchair and it’s not long until a change of orders comes from the top. It’s on to the next one.


“This is the Korean Memorial,” Jim tells his father at the base of the wall.


It’s a symbol of what our dads, granddads, and so many other men and women did for our country. A country born on the backs of soldiers.


Evansville is rich in military history and there is a special connection to the Korean War. The 38th parallel, a dividing line between North and South Korea during the war, runs right through the city.


“When you can put your hand next to the face of a man or woman,” Jim says choking back tears. “It’s very special.”


Perhaps making this trip even more special is Jim’s brother, Don is on it too, with his father-in-law, Ted Arview. “It’s emotional,” Don says, “I mean there is beautiful sites and the monuments are spectacular.”


They visit sacred Arlington Cemetery next, and it opens wounds, fresh from ‘53.


“Our main job in Korea was patrolling Wonsan Harbor, which was red territory,” Arview explains.


Don says the trip has brought out old stories he’s never heard before. “It has been very emotional for him, it brings back memories, it brings back thoughts.”


“It just took me back to things we saw,” Arview adds with a long pause. “Dead bodies in the water.”


He doesn’t have many good memories of the war. “It was hard.”


Arview remembers the fallen at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The sentinel isn’t aiming for speed, only precision. His uniform is as crisp as each footfall clicking on the white marble.


During a changing of the guard you can hear only one miss-step, a small scuff of his heel disturbs the otherwise perfect routine. It is the soldier’s way of saluting the men and women who came before him.


“I’m getting emotional just thinking about this,” Don says, “there’s so much that we are thankful for and there’s so much that we need to thank our veterans for every day.”


A long day is winding down, but mail call on the flight back does just enough to crack even the hardest warriors. Names are read a loud and envelopes, filled with handwritten notes and colored pages from kids, and passed around.


When it's time to say goodbye, this will be their lasting memory.


They come back to Evansville with bagpipes and drums. Decades later, it’s a welcome home many never heard. The crowd cheers their heroes, while the word “thanks” echoes off terminal walls.


Now these soldiers and sailors can finally say thank you, too.

For the latest breaking news and stories from across the Tri-State, follow Eyewitness News on Facebook and Twitter.


(This story was originally published November 9, 2017)


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