Surprises mark WWII veterans' Honor Flight visit to memorial
By CARLOS BONGIOANNI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 28, 2012
WASHINGTON — “It was priceless.”
That’s how Army Capt. Matt Gomoll described the surprise greeting he gave his grandfather, Joe Salzer, at the National World War II Memorial in Washington on Friday.
Salzer, 87, was among dozens of veterans from Wisconsin visiting the memorial as part of the Old Glory Honor Flight program that gives WWII veterans free flights to the nation’s capital to visit various war memorials in the area.
When the group arrived at Reagan National Airport, they received an unexpected reception.
“All these people were greeting us and thanking us. It kind of shocked me,” said Salzer, a Navy veteran from Oshkosh, Wis., who served on a repair ship in the South Pacific during WWII.
But a greater shock came when Salzer stepped off the tour bus that brought them to the memorial. There, standing before him was his grandson Matt, dressed in his Army uniform, greeting him with a warm welcome.
Salzer said he “absolutely” did not expect to see his grandson who recently graduated from a Special Forces school.
“I found out about the trip and knew I had to be there for it. I couldn’t miss this for the world,” said Gomoll, 29, who drove up from Fort Bragg, N.C., where he is stationed.
Surprising WWII veteran grandfathers seemed to be the order of the day.
Marine Sgt. Ryan Schmidt and his family members had the same idea, and their plans brought just as much surprise.
But it took a few seconds for the reality to sink in.
“I was so shocked I couldn’t think of Ryan’s name,” said the Marine’s grandfather, Vince Schmidt, a WWII Army veteran. “When he first came up with the (wheel) chair, I thought, ‘boy, he sure resembles …’ but I couldn’t think of his name, you know, … and here it was him.”
Friday’s visit to the war memorial was the 14th of 15 honor flights planned for Wisconsin veterans, according to Jon LiDonne, vice president of Old Glory Honor Flight.
“I think we’re nearing the end of World War II veterans coming, at least for us, from northeast Wisconsin.”
LiDonne said his group has sponsored five flights per year since 2010.
American Airlines and the Experimental Aircraft Association joined Old Glory Honor Flight in sponsoring Friday's trip to D.C.
Many of the veterans signing up for the flights now, LiDonne said, are those who previously didn’t think they contributed much to the war effort so they held back letting others come first. But now LiDonne’s group is encouraging anybody who hasn’t been on a flight to do so now.
“Our list of World War II veterans is getting very, very small … So we’re hoping we can finish this year with World War II veterans and maybe next year continue with the Korean War veterans.”
As for Friday’s group, LiDonne said they had one more big surprise for the return trip. He said EAA AirVenture, a huge aviation display that was expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people, was taking place at the Oshkosh airport and that LiDonne’s group had arranged for a surprise welcome.
“We’ll come back to probably 10 to 20,000 waiting spectators,” to cheer the returning veterans, he said.
Marine Sgt. Ryan Schmidt shocked his grandfather, Vince Schmidt, with a surprize encounter at the World War II Memorial on Friday, July 27, 2012. It took a few seconds for the elder Schmidt, a WWII Army veteran taking part in an Honor Flight trip to D.C., to recognize his grandson and then his great grandchildren nearby.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES