Mequon – It may not have been his first tour of Washington, D.C., but the Nov. 5 Stars and Stripes Honor Flight was certainly a memorable one for Mequon resident Ralph Witte.
“From start to finish, I was really impressed with everything,” said Witte, who was among more than 70 World War II and Korean War veterans who got to take the day trip to see and enjoy the war memorials in the nation’s capital in the last flight of the season. “I certainly expected there to be volunteers, but I did not expect to see hundreds of people helping and greeting us. That was a big surprise I will definitely not forget.”
Witte, 83, started as a machine gunner after he was drafted in 1952 with the 7th Infantry Division and was a sergeant first class with the 25th division when he completed his service in 1955.
More than 60 years later, the Honor Flight experience brought back more memories than Witte anticipated.
“Seeing the Korean Memorial (with the Honor Flight) was a pretty moving experience,” Witte recalled, with emotion choking at the back of his throat. “As a platoon leader, my main job was to maintain positions, which made for some long, cold nights through the dead of winter.”
Originally from Iowa, Witte said his parents refused to sign the necessary paperwork to allow him to enlist when he graduated high school at the age of 17.
“I felt a sense of responsibility to my country I couldn’t deny,” said Witte, who worked in pharmaceutical sales after the war until he retired in 1994. He has nine grandchildren and three children, one of whom accompanied him on the flight.
“The whole experience was incredibly moving, both for my father as well as myself,” said his son, Doug Witte. “Honestly I think the welcome home portion of it was one of the highlights. It was such an honor to be there with my dad and see him take it all in.”
“Everything about the whole Honor Flight experience was so much more spectacular than I expected,” Ralph added. “I had seen the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery before, but I struck this time by how huge the place really is.”
Including the most recent flight, Stars and Stripes Honor Flights will have taken 618 veterans to Washington this year and 4,818 since the program was founded in 2008. The Nov. 5 flight marked the 37th mission since its inception to honor and appreciate veterans for their service.
“Many of our WWII and Korean War veterans never received any thanks or a welcome home, and it is our honor to finally celebrate them for their selfless service to our nation,” said Paula Nelson, president of Stars and Stripes Honor Flight.
Also on board the Delta Airlines MD88 aircraft on Nov. 5 were six veterans who served in WWII, and 66 who served in the Korean War.