Paul Mazan is a regular American Gunsmith contributor, author, and Vietnam veteran. Here is his telling of participating in an Honor Flight.
The Honor Flight
by Paul Mazan
46 years ago when I arrived home from England the greeting I got was far from friendly. I was in uniform and that made me a target of every hippie, war protester and anyone that simply needed someone to hate. I have carried something of a grudge against the people of this country (in general) ever since. Veterans from WW 2 and Korea simply ignored the Vietnam vets and let this go on. The media portrayed us all as psychotic slayers of babies and innocent civilians and nobody cared. Hollywood and the news media adored the peace marchers, protesters and made icons of Jane Fonda and others that went to Hanoi to aid and comfort the enemy. Old news to my generation. The honor Flights were set up to take vets to Washington DC to visit their memorials and honor their service but, I can now tell you from experience, in the case of the Vietnam vets, they have accomplished far more than that.
The experience started out like a rerun of most military experiences, hurry up and wait. We gathered at midnight to have breakfast, make a two-hour drive to the St. Louis airport, and catch an 8 AM flight to Washington. The morning seemed to indicate that things hadn’t changed much. That feeling started to dissolve when we boarded the plane. All the Vets boarded first. I thought that was because we had several wheelchair bound people and we needed to get them seated and the chairs out to the luggage handlers. But when the flight was announced the announcer mentioned that there were 73 veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars on the flight there were actually cheers and applause from the other passengers and passengers from surrounding gates. It felt strange and I wondered if it was a response to the Korean war vets. Upon arrival in Washington it was clear something else was happening. As we approached our gate two airport firetrucks, one on each side of our plane, opened up with their roof mounted water cannon and formed a high pressure arch over our plane, pretty neat I thought but, I wasn’t prepared for what came next. As I exited the plane the waiting area was full of passengers waiting for the flight out and they erupted in applause, cheers, handshakes and thanked us for our service. I was overwhelmed and somewhat confused on how to respond. There were several military members in uniform right at the door and I got a moment to shake their hands and thank them for their service but they were having none of that. One said, we get this all the time, it’s your turn. All the way down the concourse people applauded us and shook hands and thanked us. It was a very emotional moment for me. Once on our buses we were escorted by D.C. Police cars and motorcycles all the way to each memorial without ever having to stop for a traffic light. The memorials themselves were a disappointment for me but the people visiting them never let us down or think we had been forgotten or despised for participating in the military at that time. We got handshakes and thanked everywhere we went from the old, the young and even from children.
A word on Washington and the memorials. The city looks much better in photographs than it does in person. Everything is compacted into the downtown area and it is a condensed cluster of gray stone buildings all next to or across from each other. The feeling the downtown area gave me is the same one I got as a kid when I walked into an old stone post office or police station. Cold remote and somewhat scary with the power of government overshadowing all. Where there were parks and beautiful stretches of lawn and trees there were fences to keep you out of them and on the concrete where you belonged.
I expected to be emotionally overwrought at the Vietnam wall, but in truth I felt very little. I thought it was a memorial that was isolated and sunken into the ground but instead it is in the open up against a berm. It was so crowded there was no feeling of peace or contemplation possible surrounded by large numbers of tourists and the typical hustle to get rubbings of names done. I tried to get a picture of panel E3 where I left the boots I was issued in 1966 and wore throughout my time in the Air Force, with my reflection in the polished black granite. I was never able to get a shot without other people in the background. There is a name on that particular panel of a guy I went to grade school and high school with and I had planned this for years. The only place I felt some time for reflection was at the statue of the three Vietnam era soldiers. Looking worn out and confused. They are placed looking at “The Wall” with those expressions on their faces and that was the most moving thing I saw and pretty well described the GI’s reaction to the war, the loss of life and the conflict at home.
The World War Two memorial is large and impressive but, in my opinion, has no soul and no connection with the men and women that fought that war both in the field and in the factories. The greatest generation deserves a memorial that salutes them. This seems to be a cold unfeeling salute to industrialized warfare. It is precise in its alignment of features bland in its monotone stone gray color and devoid of personality. It appears to have been turned out in a factory by a machine rather than built by men to honor warriors that saved the world from tyranny.
Arlington National Cemetery is beautiful and well kept. You get a sense of what our freedom has cost as you look at hillsides and open expanses of acres and acres of white crosses and tombstones that mark the graves of some 14,000 dead. The only thing that keeps it from being overwhelming is the fact that you only see portions of it at a time and there is no point where you get the impact of seeing them all at once. The changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknowns was a very impressive ceremony. Mostly, I think, because it was done by dedicated soldiers with utmost respect, precision and quiet. There is a very small World War one memorial in Arlington that the tours don’t even bother to stop at. The Marine memorial is at least twice as large as you think it is and the flag raising on Iwo makes a profound impression.
Old age and fatigue kept me from getting to the Korean war memorial but we stopped for a picnic lunch at the Air Force memorial and that was the biggest disappointment to this old airman. The three partial arcs that climb into the sky and are meant to look like the contrails of the Thunderbirds aerobatic team doing a bomb burst maneuver with one plane missing to symbolize the missing man formation is mounted on a plain pad of concrete. I thought it looked like the runes of whatever monument that might have stood there before. More of an afterthought than a tribute. Perhaps it was done on a budget with whatever junk they had lying around. No, Washington and the monuments were totally overshadowed by the veterans I met, the volunteers, who paid their own way to work like dogs to make sure we felt honored and properly thanked for our service, and all the people we met along the way.
As great and overwhelming as the experience had been the best was yet to come. Getting off the plane in St. Louis was a repeat of what we had experienced in Washington. Applause, handshakes and welcome home wishes all the way down the concourse. Little would I have believed what Columbia had in store for us. As the busses approached Kingdom City the Missouri Highway patrol had set up a rolling roadblock to keep traffic behind us and 353 motorcycles from the Freedom riders met us and escorted us back into town. NO! I did not misspell that, THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY-THREE! Motorcycles at midnight on a Wednesday met our two busses and escorted us into town. Along the way people lined every overpass with flags, cheers and applause and two businesses put up impressive fireworks displays in our honor. People lined the road with flags and waved. Traffic was controlled by police cars from The Highway Patrol, the City of Columbia, the Boone County Sheriff’s department, and the University of Missouri police. We arrived to a huge flag suspended over the road by the Columbia Fire Department and several hundred people gathered with our families to greet us. We were taken off the buses one at a time, introduced and cheered and applauded. In short, we got the Welcome Home celebration we should have had forty years ago and you cannot know how much healing and how thankful we were to see people come out spontaneously on a late weekday night to say thanks and we’re sorry for what was done to you so long ago. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but at least for me I can say Thank You, all is forgiven America. Thank you to everyone who donated to make this possible and especially to all the volunteers of the Honor Flight team. You will never know how much it means or how good it feels.
Promise kept! I returned the combat boots the Air Force issued me in 1966. Left them in front of panel E3 at the Vietnam memorial under the name of a guy I went to grade school and high school with.