For Mica (Marriott) Ward, serving as a Heartland Honor Flight guardian was a joy. The Gardner Edgerton High School alum said she spent the day with a walking piece of history. The experience made her feel closer to both of her grandfathers.
Heartland Honor Flight is a non-profit organization that transports veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit war monuments and reflect. Every veteran travels with a personal escort or guardian. The cost of the flight for veterans – about $700 per person – is funded through the organization, but guardians and escorts pay their own way.
“These escorts can be children or grandchildren, but a lot of the time, (the veterans) don’t have someone available who can get off work and go with them or pay their own way,” Ward said.
That’s where members of KC Bettys, an organization that performs at veteran and museum events and military exhibits, stepped in. They hosted a fundraiser to serve as standby guardians on an honor flight.
Heartland Honor Flight charters two planes per year from Kansas City – one in the spring and one in the fall.
In May, Heartland Honor Flight needed two of the Bettys to escort veterans, and on Oct. 7, Ward and five other Bettys received the call.
“They assigned us veterans,” Ward said.
Before the Oct. 7 adventure, Ward met the veteran she would be escorting, Les Page, at a flight orientation. Page, of Blue Springs, Mo., is a World War II veteran who served in Europe in the U.S. Army infantry under Gen. George S. Patton.
Originally from Minnesota, Page joined the military right after he graduated from high school in 1924.
Ward said she requested to escort a shy veteran.
“I opened him right up like a jar of peanut butter,” she said. “He was a chatty cathy. We laughed together. We cried together. It was just a really cool experience.”
Page served as the official photographer for his battalion during the war. He shared pictures with Ward during the flight to Washington. Page hadn’t looked at the photos in more than 40 years.
The photographs documented the men invading Germany and evacuating concentration camps. The experience made Ward feel close to her grandfathers. Both were veterans of World War II. Her maternal grandfather Bob Cunningham, who lived in Gardner before his death in 1991, served in the Army Air Corps in Africa during the war. He contracted and survived malaria while in the service.
Ward never knew her paternal grandfather, George Marriott. The Gardner man, who with his brother founded Marriott’s Garage in Gardner in 1949, died in 1969.
“From what my dad and uncle tell me, he never talked about the war,” Ward said.
But Page did, when Ward accompanied him to D.C.
Page recalled liberating a concentration camp shortly after the Germans had evacuated it.
The camp’s survivors were so starved and thin U.S. medics were unable to feed them intravenously.
“They were so emaciated that there was nothing they could do,” Ward said.
The Americans found a mass grave where German soldiers had lined up their Jewish prisoners and gunned them down before leaving the concentration camp.
Some of the men in the makeshift grave weren’t dead when the Americans arrived. When the soldiers caught the Germans and brought them back to the camp, they allowed the surviving Jews who were still able to bend fingers to help gun the German soldiers down.
“I always understood and grasped the seriousness and devastation of that, but until I heard my veteran talk about that – at that moment, I grasped the emotion and why (the veterans) didn’t talk about it. During that moment, I felt like I was closer to the grandfather I never knew,” Ward said. “That was something that I take away and I really cherish.”
About a quarter of the veterans who visited Washington, D.C. in October were World War II veterans. The other 75 percent fought in the Korean War.
The Veteran’s Administration estimates that an American World War II veteran dies every three minutes, or about 550 veterans per day.
“It’s too bad that most of the younger generation will not hear the experience from those guys,” Ward said. “They can read it in books, but until they’re sitting there talking to them, you don’t actually grasp it. You don’t fully understand it.”
The American people had no idea what Germany was doing to the Jews, Ward said.
Americans had heard stories from Polish immigrants that the Germans were oppressing the Jews.
“But we had no idea that (the Germans) were rounding them up and putting them in concentration camps and starving them,” Ward said. “We had no idea the severity of how they treated the Jews. We didn’t know.”
Heartland Honor Flight gives preference to World War II veterans who wish to visit their monument in D.C.
“They always have first chance to go, because they’re dying off,” Ward said.
The veterans of World War II are called the greatest generation for a reason, she said.
“Those guys are so humble,” she said.
When they visited the World War II National Monument on Oct. 7, Ward said many of the veterans told their escorts that as veterans, they didn’t deserve any special accolades.
“Several of those guys said the guys that died, the guys who didn’t get to come back and have a life and a wife and kids, they deserve this,” she said.
The veterans did receive special treatment throughout the very long day. When they landed in Washington, they were met with great fanfare.
“These people line up and you parade through these lines of people just hearing and taking the time to shake these guys’ hands and thank them for their service,” Ward recalled.
They boarded buses and traveled to various war monuments around the nation’s capital. It took four buses to accommodate all of the Honor Flight veterans and escorts. Police officers blocked traffic as the group made its around town.
“It’s basically a motorcade. It’s like the President is in town,” she said. “They really roll out the red carpet for those guys. And those guys are just astounded that they do that.”
At the World War II monument, former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole met and shook the hands of every veteran.
“(Dole) shook every single veteran’s hand, and he had conversations with each and every one of them,” Ward said.
The mood at the Korean War Memorial and at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was somber.
On the flight home, Honor Flight does mail call, requesting that friends and family submit letters and cards for them to read on the return flight.
Ward said Page didn’t expect to get any mail. ‘I don’t know who would write me,’ Page told her.
However, Ward had asked all of her friends and family to send mail. Page wrote them all back a few days letter.
“He enclosed a picture of him and talked about the flight,” Ward said. “He took the time and wrote every person who had written him.”
Page also wrote to the Kansas City Star.
“It was the most heartwarming trip of my life,” he wrote. “…It brought tears to my eyes.”
Ward said it was a very rewarding experience.
“I totally crashed after the whole thing,” she said. “But during the whole experience, you’re so hyped up and excited that you don’t get tired. If I would have known what a great experience it was going to be, I would’ve paid double. It was awesome.”