The Honor Flight Network has been in place since 2005 to give World War II veterans a chance to view a memorial that was built in Washington, D.C., to honor those who lost their lives and those who served.
World War II veterans and Anoka American Legion members Ralph Cameron of Anoka and Richard Raatz of Brooklyn Park flew on Sun Country Airlines for free Oct. 6 to visit the World War II memorial and several others over the course of a single day.
Those who endured World War II have been called “the greatest generation” because of their efforts to destroy tyranny.
Many people came up to the veterans on Oct. 6 to shake their hands, give them a hug and thank them for their service. One stewardess on the way home shook the hands of all 100 veterans on the flight.
During their flight, every veteran was handed a V-mail with messages of support from family and friends. This is how servicemembers communicated with loved ones during World War II.
When they returned home to Minneapolis around 10:30 p.m., a band played, service members from each branch saluted and others clapped.
“We were like kings all day long,” Cameron said.
With approximately 900 World War II veterans dying each day, according to 2011 statistics shared by the Honor Flight Network, there is a great urgency to take as many veterans to the nation’s capital as possible.
Jerry Kyser, coordinator of the Twin Cities Honor Flight Network, said the waiting time to get on a flight is usually nine to 12 months. He sends out letters four months in advance to confirm the flight date.
Of the 100 confirmation letters he sent out in June for the Oct. 6 flight, 55 of the original people who had signed up could not go. Kyser found out that 25 people had died and 30 could no longer go because of poor health or other circumstances.
Kyser made the decision that veterans in wheelchairs are not eligible to go on the honor flights that he organizes. If there were people in wheelchairs, they would need to be a specialty bus and he calculated that they would lose seven of the 100 available slots for each trip.
There are 66 wheelchairs taken on each trip, however, in case a veteran needs to sit at any point during the day.
Raatz was originally scheduled to be on an Honor Flight six months prior to this with his friend Milt, but Milt was not cleared by his doctor, so Raatz also removed his name from the list and both were going to go on the Oct. 6 flight.
Milt died one week after he would have gone on the last Honor Flight six months ago.
World War II service
Cameron was 16 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The Anoka High School Class of 1942 graduate turned 18 on Dec. 28, 1942.
Instead of leaving college at that point, he wrapper up his freshman year before enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the spring of 1943.
At that point, Cameron was told the United States military did not need any more pilots, so they asked him to pick something else or he would be placed in infantry.
For more information on the national Honor Flight Network, visit www.honorflight.org. For more information on the Honor Flight Network of the Twin Cities, visit www.honorflighttwincities.org or call Jerry Kyser at 651-481-8835.
Cameron had no interest in infantry, so he ultimately chose to be a cryptographic technician. Because he would be helping to transcribe confidential messages sent between U.S. military commanders, Cameron had to be cleared by the FBI.
After receiving clearance, he completed his training in Texas and then worked in secure code rooms in San Francisco, then Utah and then the Aleutian Islands west of Alaska for the duration of the war.
Near the end of the war, Cameron was ordered to transcribe a very top secret message. Usually a commissioned officer was the only one who could break a top secret code, but none were available.
Cameron asked the base commander to give him permission in writing to break the code, so he would not get into trouble later. He was sternly ordered to keep the contents of this message secret.
The code was so long that it took about eight hours to decode into writing. The base commander ordered Cameron to carry a gun and shoot anyone who may try to intercept him, which was very alarming to him.
To this day, Cameron has never shared the contents of the message and has not seen it in print.
The only hint he gave about the message was this, “As far as knowing the war was coming to an end, I knew ahead of time.”
Raatz was a freshman at the University of North Dakota when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He feared he would get drafted into the infantry so he chose to enlist in the U.S. Navy.
After boot camp at the Naval Station Great Lakes in Chicago, Ill., Raatz was sent to radio school in Pennsylvania and was ultimately assigned to relay coded messages between different stations throughout the South Pacific. The curvature of the Earth prevents radio signals from being sent directly, so signals are bounced from one station to another.
Raatz was based on one of the Fiji islands for a year-and-a-half and far from any battles. At one point, he had the honor of shaking the hand of a visiting Eleanor Roosevelt, who was the First Lady of the United States at the time.
Near the end of the war and into peacetime, Raatz was a radio operator on the USS Gardiners Bay, which was a seaplane tender. It headed west from San Diego, Calif., on April 20, 1945. After stops in Pearl Harbor and the Marshall Islands, it arrived off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, on June 7, 1945.
The Battle of Okinawa was near its end at that point. According to the History Channel, the battle officially ended on June 22, 1945. Japanese military strategy at the time was to fly airplanes into American ships, which were called kamikaze missions. The USS Gardiners Bay was never struck, but there was one close call.
After the Japanese surrendered after the Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the USS Gardiners Bay proceeded to Tokyo Bay to be part of the initial occupying force.
Raatz saw many white flags, but he said he knew the U.S. would have had a very tough time taking over Japan by force had President Harry S. Truman not ordered the dropping of the two atomic bombs.
Eric Hagen is at [email protected]