WASHINGTON -- Sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of a room in the National Archives last week in Washington, D.C., Robert Foley gazed at the painted murals depicting the nation’s founding fathers.
In front of him, a brass plate replicated the scene, with each figure labeled to help the visitor identify George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, among others.
“It’s beautiful,” said Foley, 91, of Roseau, Minn. “I’ve never been here before. It’s really historic.”
Foley was one of 85 veterans from North Dakota and Minnesota who traveled last week on the Veterans Honor Flight of North Dakota and Minnesota to Washington, D.C., to see war memorials and other significant landmarks. Their jam-packed two-day itinerary also included stops at Arlington National Cemetery and memorials commemorating Iwo Jima, Abraham Lincoln, World War II, the Vietnam War, the Korean War and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The World War II veterans, members of the fabled Greatest Generation, are dying at a rapid rate. Only about 1,000 of them are still living in North Dakota and about 10,000 in Minnesota; there were twice as many a little more than three years ago. On Memorial Day, it's a good time to remember these warriors and maybe say "thanks" before it's too late, said Jane Matejcek, president of the Honor Flight organization.
"It's so sad, because you realize in our lifetime, we've lost so many of them," she said.
"They are history. They're the Greatest Generation, as Tom Brokaw said in his book. We'll lose a lot of history that we'll never know, and that's very sad to me," she said.
When Matejcek started as a nurse at the Fargo VA Hospital 28 years ago, she took care of 17 World War I veterans. They're all gone -- the last U.S. World War I veteran died in 2012. She is sad to think of losing the next generation of American heroes.
"The World War II vets will be gone as well. And with them goes a lot of stories that will never be told," she said. "They have so much to share.
World War II was the most widespread war in history with more than 100 million people serving in military units. About 16 million Americans served during World War II, and those who are still living are in their 80s and 90s and even their 100s. Nearly 497,000 of those 16 million vets were alive nationwide in 2018, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, but that figure is projected to decrease to just under 300,000 by next year.
The ranks are dwindling at a fast pace. It is estimated that 348 WWII veterans are dying each day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
That adds a sense of urgency to Honor Flights, which are organized in about 140 hub cities to take veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials that commemorate their service and sacrifices.
"Trips like the Honor Flight help them heal, and opens them up to start sharing their stories," Matejcek said.
When veterans came back from serving in WWII, "they had no time to grieve the loss of their fellow soldiers," Matejcek said. "They went into the factories and the fields and the sawmills."
Reverence for history
In the stately National Archives, the room is dimly lit to preserve the original documents -- including the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights -- which laid out the guiding principles of a nation the likes of which the world had never seen.
The visiting veterans from the Upper Midwest last week hovered over each glass-covered display, marveling at the significance and the beauty of each document. They were reminded of the legacy of American military service and those who formed the government.
Foley, a U.S. Navy veteran who grew up in Gilby, N.D., served two years at locations in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in the ‘40s. As he speaks, his passion for history -- the country’s and his own -- is obvious.
His Irish ancestors came from eastern Ontario and homesteaded near Ardoch, N.D., he said. His grandfather and great-uncle, John and Martin Foley, traveled by train to Fisher, Minn. That's where the tracks ended; they walked to Grand Forks and then to Ardoch.
Surrounded by a room full of history, Foley said he disapproves of recent attempts to erase history by removing statues and other symbols some consider to be offensive.
“To deny things ever happened, it’s not right,” he said. “History is made for permanence, so we know what actually happened.”
Foley found the National Archives to be “just striking,” he said. He was also “very impressed by the World War II Memorial, and Arlington (cemetery) was outstanding; the Changing of the Guard was unbelievable. It was very impressive, just a beautiful ceremony.”
“The FDR Memorial was very impressive too,” Foley said.
The eldest members of the group were the 15 WWII veterans. Among them, Robert Mickel, 97, of Fargo, was one of the oldest. He was accompanied by his son, Randy Mickel, Rapid City, S.D. The oldest veteran on the flight was Leonard Heinen, 98, of Forman, N.D.
The elder Mickel, who served during WWII in Germany, described his experience on the Honor Flight tour as “kind of fantastic” and “pretty impressive.”
Randy Mickel said his father “really loved Arlington (cemetery) and the Changing of the Guard Ceremony. He was so impressed by the precision.” Robert Mickel, who served six years in the military, set an example that led Randy and Randy’s wife and daughter to serve in the U.S. Air Force.
Some members of the Veterans Honor Flight of North Dakota and Minnesota had never seen the war memorials.
Before they left Fargo early last Sunday, Charlie Christenson of Grand Forks said he was looking forward to seeing the historic landmarks. He served in the North Dakota National Guard from 1949 to 1952.
The last time he visited the capital was in the 1970s, said Christenson, “but many of the memorials were not there then.”
His fellow traveler Neil Rowe of Grand Forks was eager to see “all the memorials,” he said. A U.S. Air Force veteran, Rowe served in the military from 1952 to 1956.
Among the sites the 85 veterans visited during their two-day trip, Arlington National Cemetery may have been one of the most moving.
Dean Trost of McVille, N.D., said the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the cemetery was “quite moving.” The U.S. Army veteran, who served in Korea in the ‘50s, had not witnessed it before, he said.
“I’m honored to be able to be on this trip.”
In Arlington National Cemetery, endless rows of perfectly aligned, white, curve-top headstones mark the graves of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, what President Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”
The pure white stones overspread the immaculate verdant lawn as far as the eye can see.
“It’s an awful lot of stone,” said Alexander Gooding, 91, of Roseau, Minn., a veteran who served in the U.S. Army from 1945 to 1951 and was assigned to an occupation and security force in the U.S. Occupation Zone of West Germany and Austria.
His escort on the trip, Calvin Wong of Roseau, said Gooding told him that “before he dies, he’d like to come and see all the memorials, especially Arlington National Cemetery.”