... Nine middle school girls and the city's Veteran Services host Korean War Veterans
for a trip to see the War Memorials in Washington, D.C.
A segment of the Korea Veterans War Memorial, Washington, D.C.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I was standing on the steps of the Middle School on Thursday May 7. You usually don’t see crowds at 6 in the morning but there was a small one gathering next to a Silver Fox Line bus that was waiting with its cargo doors lifted open.
The crowd was a mixture of teen-age girls, middle age ladies, a group of younger and middle age men which included the Mayor. I was in a group definitely older; veterans and their guests, wives mostly, who would travel to Washington D.C. to view the memorials of the wars that happened when they were in the service..
This trip, named “Operation Remember” was an expression of appreciation to Veterans of the Korean War. There were fourteen vets, nine from the Korean war era plus five others who servd during World War II or Vietnam. This would be the fourth trip like this one, the three others were for vets of the Second World War and Vietnam.
The guest didn’t only include the vets. A few of them brought their wives. I don’t know who came up with the name, “Operation Remember” but it gave me a feeling of quiet satisfaction. The Korean War is often called the “Forgotten War" but someone here was remembering us.
Not many left.
The Korean War was in the early fifties meaning the guys who were in it are now well into their 80’s. Late recollection is sort of a marker for the Korean War. The Korean War Memorial wasn’t dedicated until July 27, 1995, 42 years after the truce that started on July 27, 1953. Somebody eventually got to us.
When I first saw the publicity about the Korean War Memorial in 1995 I knew I would want to see it. I also knew the likelihood of my ever going to Washington to see it was close to zero. “Operation Remember” would come 20 years later. It was a wonderful opportunity I thought I would never have.
The event itself was fashioned after the “Honor Flights” when the airlines would fly veterans from various places in the country into Washington to see the memorials. Retired Middle School principal, Tom Brow, initiated the bus programs for Melrose veterans when he challenged his Middle School girls to come up with the program.
The dedicated survivors.
At the beginning of the school term over 70 students inquired about the program but eventually only 9 girls would remain as the hard nosed volunteers. Under the guidance of Bob Driscoll of the city’s Veteran Services the girls, who are in their early teens, studied and wrote papers about the wars and battles, and in addition, they carried out the fund raising. They devoted themselves to the project for the entire school year.
Lisa Lord shapes up the Middle School volunteers for a photo.
There were others involved, too. Ryan McLane who heads the city’s Veterans Services was one of the mainstays of the program. He’s the one I heard from when the invitations were being extended.
There are 54 people on the bus to Washington. Beside the vets, the group includes a support team of the middle-school girls, their mothers who are doing double duty as chaperons, and the veteran services guys, Ryan McLane, Bob Driscoll, and Mike Buggie. Other travelers include the Mayor and his son Ryan, and other people who have been involved with the city’s veterans programs. This includes Lisa Lord, who in addition to being a teacher, runs a non-profit called Melrose Veterans Memory Project.
The veteran sitting beside me has brought his twin 10-year old grandsons who look so much alike that people think they are seeing only person when they are not together. One lady getting back on the bus expresses this impression when she sees them sitting side-by-side and says, “Oh, my God, you’re twins!”
The fund raising part of the program becomes obvious when Ryan McLane tells me that anyone on the trip who is not a veteran or his wife is paying $300 to participate.
Our chariot makes ready for a long drive to Washington.
The troops move out.
We take off from the Middle School in style. There is a little parade of vehicles by a city Police SUV, followed by a State Police SUV, our bus, and finally a second State Police SUV that trails behind the bus as backup. All three police vehicles have their sirens blaring and their red and blue bubblegum lights pulsating.
The city SUV drops off when we hit Stoneham but the Staties stay on. This special
escort is blazing a no-stops, no slow-down trail through the early morning bumper-to bumper traffic on Route 93 and then onto Route 95. It’s only about 7AM when traffic is at its god-awful awfulest. We, however, are sailing from one lane to another melting through the jammed-up traffic as if it weren’t there.
This continues until we get to the Mass Pike at Weston which heads South to New York. Without our escort this trip would have taken about an hour and a half. For sure, we’ve done it in less than half that. When we get to the Pike the lead
trooper spurts ahead so he can pull over and stop and get out of his SUV. Just before we go by him he pulls himself into a full military brace, snaps a salute and holds it as we go by. I’m wondering if everyone else is as thrilled as I am.
We have a couple of rest stops on the way down. I forget where we stop for lunch but it has a Starbucks so I get a nice sandwich and a Frappachino. By now we are talking to one another, long bus ride or no, we are enjoying ourselves.
No room at the inn.
The plan calls for us to have supper in D.C. at a place that used to be the District’s main train station. But air travel has changed things. Now Congressmen arrive by air at Ronald Regan, Baltimore, or Dulles airports and the train station is a mall that offers a number of different restaurants. We attempt to drive in the bus entrance but an attendant waves us off. Tomorrow will be the anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe and the district is jammed with people who are there to observe it.
It will be the only hitch in the whole trip. Ryan makes a decision. We’ll continue on to the hotel, check in, and have our dinner there. I’m not expecting much in the way of the place we’re going to stay. A Holiday Inn probably, rehabbed into Spartan accommodations, thin towels, scratchy sheets, and a frosted flakes bbreakfast.
I am dead wrong. We check into an Embassy Suites that is really nice . The Veterans get the premium suites on the 6th floor. The only hang-up is that since the hotel wasn’t expecting us for dinner they’re short on staff and things take awhile. But every thing works out.
Up and at ‘em.
We‘re up early the next day. Before we leave t-shirts are handed out. They are a handsome olive green. The color imprint on the back says “Freedom is not Free”. We will see that sentiment expressed again before the day is through.
The veterans are given handsome black, visor-hats. Gold lettering states the war you were in. They even include the campaign ribbons in full color. I don’t wear mine. That’s because I already have a hat and I have pinned the emblem of my outfit, the 25th Infantry Division, on the side of it. I have plans for the pin.
We take off and head for the Arlington Cemetery where we hope to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There is a wait for the open-sided tram that will takes us there. While we are standing in line people are coming up to us, extending their hand while and say “Thank you for your service, sir.”
It’s a young guy who is the first one to say it to me. I’m surprised. No one has ever said this to me before. As I shake his hand I say, “Thanks, and you’re a helluva kid.” He gives me a few nervous little blinks at my unexpected response
before he moves on to his next handshake.
We get a long distance view of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The changing of the guard.
As we walk up to the Unknown Soldier Tomb the guard changing is already in process. We’re on the edge of a crowd looking in at the slow, deliberate proceedings as a sergeant inspects the guards who are about to assume duty. Except for the weapon inspection which is carried out with a snappy clickity-click speed, the rest of the procedure is careful and slow, almost dream-like in its execution.
The inspection is a special moment for me. The sergeant has an emblem that is pinned to his dress blues just below his chest. The emblem is the same as the one that I have pinned to my hat.
We honor our own.
We walk over to view something that will provide an especially meaningful moment for us. We are at the gravesite of Walter Monegan a Marine from Melrose who was killed in Korea. The engraving on his small tombstone is in gold. That’s to signify that he was the recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery. It is our country’s highest military honor.
We stand in a little group around his tombstone. One of the old soldiers says,
“Uncover.” and all the hats come off. One of the Middle School girls stands behind the stone and reads the citation that describes what he did. In an impossible situation he stood to fire at the onrushing enemy soldiers. He didn’t stop until
he was cut down by small arms fire.
Walter was 19 when he died. He was killed in September 1950 just five days after the Marines’ amphibious landing in Inchon in which he participated.
Walter Monegan's grave marker at Arlington National Cemetery. Note Medal of Honor designation.
Mayor Dolan has been recording our little memorial on his smart phone. He forwards it to his secretary who is on vacation in Toronto who in turn posts it on the city’s website. We haven’t walked 10 yards back to the roadway when he looks at his phone and says, “My God, there’s been 300 hits already!
Lunch with Mickey D.
We have lunch at the Aero Space building. It has a large food service section located in the back of the building and we join the crowd who’s trying its luck at McDonald’s which seems to dominate the cafeteria area.
There is also a visit to the World War II memorial which is gigantic. A circular wall surrounds a large reflection pool. Each state has its own memorial built into the wall, large stone blocks all the same size and shape which are built into the wall and, like the wall itself, surround the pool. We find the block inscribed with Massachusetts. Our two World War II vets march through a little corridor girls form. Each of the girls is holding an American flag.
John Melarani one of the World War II vets gives a little testimonial to the troops who fought and died in this momentous conflagration.
A famous event enshrined.
The flag raising at Iowa Jima. Note the forest green t-shirts worn by the members of our group.
We have to get on the bus to drive to the Marine Memorial. It is probably the most emembered memorial of World War II. … a group of Marines on Iwo Jima struggling to push a pole upright that holds the American Flag. The memorial was paid for by individual Marines whose personal donations raised the $800,000 that financed the
memorial. We take a group picture in front of the memorial.
An emotion packed memorial wall.
It’s back to the bus that will take us to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. When we get out we pass by a group statue of three soldiers in battle gear. It was later added to the memorial in 1984 to take away the impression that the famous wall that holds the 58,000 names of the troops who were killed was a tombstone.
The funds necessary to build and inscribe the wall was almost $9 million, all of it coming from private donations. The wall of black granite is built into the side of a hill. At it’s lowest point it has only one inscribed name as the wall follows the contour of the hill it becomes higher and more and more names are added.
I cannot figure out the system that was used for the order of the names. There will be a group of names listed alphabetically and then for no seeming reason another group will appear in alphabetical order. There is a guide there and I ask him why this has occurred. He said the order was determined by the date they were killed. A fresh alphabetical listing indicates a new day of those killed in action.
Later I get another piece of information. More than half the names listed represent troops that were under 22 years old. The most frequently listed names are for troops who were age 19.
This sculpture was added years later to the Vietnam Memorial so that people would not think the Wall was intended o be a tombstone.
We walk by the Lincoln Memorial on our way to the Korea Memorial. Some hardy souls
take the long stairway up for a closer look. But not me. I’ve been here before. In
January 1949 I was in the Lt. Norman Prince Drum Corps when we marched in Harry
Truman’s inauguration parade.
Our tours last stop.
We approach the Korean Memorial from the back. A number of troopers wearing steel
helmets and ponchos are walking carefully through shin high brush which is real. These trooper statues I learn later are made of stainless steel and are seven feet tall, each one of them weighs almost a thousand pounds.
I get critical. The ponchos are way to big but they are flowing to give the impression that the soldiers are moving forward. But I notice, too, that everyone is carrying the right stuff. M1 rifles for the riflemen but the radio operators are carrying carbines. There’s a BAR man carrying that high impact weapon and you can see the folded bipod hanging down under the muzzle and the 13-round clip that’s stuck up under the firing chamber. Somebody’s done his homework.
A memorial created to impart the emotion of the combat soldiers.
It dawns on me that all these individual statues are displaying an apprehension. It’s a group reaction. They’re responding to something that’s put them on edge. These are not just guys who are walking along. This is a collection of statues that represents a feeling. A feeling of restrained anxiety. I don’t think I have ever seen anything like it.
As we move by the soldiers we’re walking by a 164 foot wall that has over 2500 images that have been sandblasted into the wall. The pictures are from photographs that depict the culture of that era. We end up at a reflecting pool with casualty numbers of the war inscribed into it. There’s another granite wall, too. It’s significantly smaller than the others. Inscribed is a simple message… Freedom is not Free. It’s the same message that’s on the back of the olive green t-shirts we’re wearing.
The Korean vets speak their piece…almost.
There’s a small circular area we move to. Ryan asks that the Korean vets to say
something about the memorial, why they wanted to see it, for example. When it’s my
turn I say that I wanted to see the memorial because I think of my friends I was with in Korea. I hope they will come here some day, too so that they can think of me the way I’m thinking of them right now. I don’t get through my short speech. I get emotional, break down near the end and finish in tears.
We get together at the end and dedicate a wreath to the guys who died in Korea. I am embarrassed by my emotional reaction but not why I react. Before we leave I walk back over to where the soldier statues are. I am about to complete my plan. I take off my hat and undo the 25th Division emblem pin. I fling the pin as hard as I can toward the statues. It lands soundlessly in the underbrush. It gives me the feeling that now I’m there, too.
We go back to the hotel and have a nice dinner. There’s a group who are sitting
together and enjoying themselves. They wave me over to join them but that situation has got late night written all over it. I smile a goodbye and head up to bed.
After a great breakfast we load up and take off for Melrose. It’s a fun ride. The girls get together and put together some goofy awards for the vets. “Best Dressed” the guy who obviously wasn’t and “the one most likely to get on he wrong bus” for the guy who accidentally did that during one of our stops.
Going out with a blast.
We get back to Melrose when it’s getting dark. A city police SUV meets us near Stone Zoo to escort us back to the Middle School where the family members who will drive us home are waiting. There is one last ceremony. The girls get off the bus first and form a little lane each vet will pass through as he gets off the bus. The girls are holding American flags. Each vet is announced as he disembarks the bus and gets a cheer from the drive-us-home group.
My daughter-in law will chauffer me home. When I get there I think of my little
emotional outburst. But I’m certain that one of these days at least one of my Korea pals gets to Washington to visit the Memorial. When he sees it I know he’ll think of me and the other guys he was with in Korea. I’ll bet he cries, too.
June 5, 2015