Grateful Stars And Stripes Honor Flight Recipient Tells His Story
|Stars and Stripes Honor Flight participants in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington D.C.|
By R.J. SmileyStars and Stripes Honor Flight is the Milwaukee-area hub of the National Honor Flight Network. Their mission is to fly WWII veterans, Korean War veterans, and terminally ill veterans of any conflict on a one day, all-expenses-paid trips to Washington DC to visit their memorials and experience a full day of honor and thanks.
To date, Stars and Stripes Honor Flight has flown 4,818 local veterans to DC since 2008. Stars and Strips Honor Flight is an all-volunteer organization with no paid staff, no offices and low overhead. Flights are funded by donations from individuals, corporations and foundations. No government monies are used and $.98 of every dollar donated goes directly to flying veterans.
Each veteran travels with a "guardian" to keep them safe and happy throughout the day. Guardians pay a travel fee of $500, but the veteran's flight is completely free. Stars and Stripes Honor Flight flies out of General Mitchell Airport. The veterans and their guardians check in at about 5:00 a.m., and they return to a Homecoming parade with thousands of cheering spectators around 9:00 p.m.
Earl Thomas was an 86 year old Korean War veteran when he took his Honor Flight to Washington DC. Calling the DC trip, "the greatest thing that ever happened to me." Thomas recalled with vivid detail the raw emotion he felt when he experienced the memorial. "When I looked at them soldiers pushin' up that flag, it was like me being there again. I could feel the agony that showed in their faces."
Between 1948 and 1953, Earl served two tours of duty in Korea. As a member of the 74th Truck Company, Thomas hauled ammunition, food and supplies to troops on the front line at the 38th parallel. "My lieutenant gave me a direct order to get back in the truck and start driving. I prayed, jumped in the truck and went. When I got back to the post, my truck was all shot up. Somehow, they didn't hit me." As a result of his heroism, Thomas was awarded the Bronze Star.
Thomas learned some unique lessons in Korea. His all black unit was one of the first units integrated during the Truman administration. "They assigned some white guys to our unit. When the Colonel heard about it, he told them they were free to transfer out of the unit. They told him, 'Why? We are all brothers fighting for our country.'"
Thomas grew up in Memphis and joined the army after his junior year of high school. "When I came home from Korea I really was disenchanted... I threw my uniform in the trash. I couldn't take the pressures they were putting on black Americans, so I told my mama I was leaving."
Earl and his wife wrote to a friend in Wisconsin who informed them that there were plenty of jobs in Milwaukee. Thomas was trained as a cook in the army prior to becoming a truck driver, so he took a job as a cook in a Milwaukee County Mental Health Department. He later moved to the House of Corrections where he cooked and later developed a cooking school for inmates. "I knew that a cook could always get a job." As a result of the success Thomas achieved at the House of Corrections, he became director of food services at the Milwaukee County Parks golf courses.
"I retired with 38 years of service," he said. "At my retirement party they gave me a set of golf clubs and five golf lessons. Shortly thereafter my wife passed. I started playing golf to fill my days and hide my grief. When I started playing I just kept playing. I played golf every day for six months, some days 36 holes. I've been playing golf ever since."
On November 5, 2016 Thomas and 65 other Korean War veterans joined 6 WWII veterans on this trip of a lifetime.
"It was the cream of the crop. I couldn't have gotten a better feeling from it," Thomas said after his Honor Flight. "The Korean War Memorial was outstanding, and the whole day was perfect. I will never forget it."
"Our Korean War heroes often feel as if their service is forgotten," said Paula Nelson, president of Stars and Stripes Honor Flight. "Many of them faced situations that were as dangerous and traumatic as those faced by our WWII veterans. At Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, we are thrilled to take so many Korean War veterans on their Honor Flight and finally thank them for their service and sacrifice."
For more information on Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, see www.starsandstripeshonorflight.org.
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