Armed Forces Day / Honor Flight Super Saturday

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President Harry S. Truman led the effort to establish a single holiday for citizens to come together and thank our military members for their patriotic service in support of our country. On August 31, 1949, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson announced the creation of an Armed Forces Day to replace separate Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force Days. The single day celebration stemmed from the unification of the Armed Forces under the Department of Defense. - AFD.defense.gov

It would not be a proper May without a Super Saturday at the WWII Memorial. Over the last few years, this has become an unintentional tradition (and one that I'm most happy to continue into the future!), as each May some or all of us end up in D.C. just in time for a Super Saturday.

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Notes from May 19:

Armed Forces Day / Despite the dreary skies, spirits and energy were high at the National World War II Memorial today as we welcomed 9 Honor Flights from all over the country, Oregon to New York!! At one point, we even had 3 full flights invade the Memorial at the same time - the happiest and most wonderful organized chaos. I can think of no better way to spend this special day recognizing our troops. It was an honor. Love our vets so much!!


PC: Hudson Valley HF

PC: Hudson Valley HF

For those new to Operation Meatball or unfamiliar with the way Honor Flight works, Super Saturdays are days when an unusually large number of Honor Flights arrive at the memorials in D.C. Though all Honor Flight days are magical in their own way, Super Saturdays are overwhelmingly awesome.

From 8:30 in the morning to around 4:30 in the afternoon, it's a constant barrage of veterans, guardians, and wheelchairs.  Each State brings their own personality, stories, and hilarity. Handshakes, hugs, greetings... before you know it, the day is over, and you are exhausted, but so, so happy.

The Armed Forces Day Super Saturday brought in a whopping 9 flights from around the country, equaling between 800 and 900 veterans! Below are just a few snippets from the day.


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Enjoyed a nice chat with the sweet Mr. Bartram from Oregon. He was a Medic with the Marine Corps from 1951-1952, assigned to a Machine gun unit. Always an honor to meet our brave medics! 

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This adorable swabby spent some time explaining to me how "The Sea Bees won the war!"

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You never know who will turn up on a Super Saturday! Such a pleasure to meet General James Mattis, Secretary of Defense. Of course we had to talk about Iwo Jima.

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When I met Mr. Hastings, he was wearing the Honor Flight Smile to the max. He told me how he was only on this trip thanks to a random woman who approached him in Walmart and said, "Have you ever heard of Honor Flight?" Shortly after he was signed up and on his flight, and loving every moment of it!

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We managed to round up [most] of the Marines from Honor Flight Columbus because you know... it's the Marines. ❤

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It's pretty great when you run into folks you know through Honor Flight...or their relatives! I met Mr. Miller's uncle "Moon" Miller in Normandy a few years ago!

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Always a delight for the vets to have Senator Dole come out to the Memorial.

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The Boys Scouts were a great addition to the day, handing out mini American Flags to the veterans.

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And the best dressed award goes to... 


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"The Bombs Bursting in Air"

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Probably one of the most remarkable stories I heard at the Marine reunion in San Antonio (more on that later) was from Lt. Col. Tom Kalus, a 27-year Marine Corps veteran who not only fought on Iwo Jima, but was also one of the "Chosin Few" from the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. We just had the the 66th anniversary of this battle (Nov. 27 - Dec 13, 1950), so it seemed an appropriate time to share this story.

When I met Mr. Kalus, it was during the tour of the Nimitz Museum. I came up and introduced myself to him and we chatted for a few minutes. Then he gave me his card and on one side it stated his unit, 5th Division, 5th JASCO, etc... but on the flip side it also stated, 1st Marine Division... "One of the 'Chosin Few."' Now, there are three defining moments in the history of the Marine Corps: Belleau Wood (WWI), Iwo Jima (WWII), and the Chosin Reservoir (Korean War), and it is pretty rare to meet a Marine who took part in both the Battle of Iwo Jima and Chosin Reservoir. To date I have only met one other veteran like this, a 4th Marine Division guy with stories that are so unbelievable, it is truly a miracle he survived at all.

But getting back to the story... One of the last days of the reunion I was chatting with Mr. Kalus about his remarkable service in the Corps and naturally the subject turned to Iwo and Chosin. "Do you remember the lines in the National Anthem," he asked, "About the 'rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air? When I was on Iwo, about the 3rd or 4th night, the Japs gave us a real hard shelling. One of the wisecracks in my foxhole said, 'Hey look, it's like in the song with the bombs bursting in air.' I didn't pay much attention to him at the time, until one night at Chosin. The 7th Marines were bravely taking a hill and the Chinese were giving them everything they'd got. The sky was filled with explosions and fireworks. I remembered what the Marine said on Iwo, 'and the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air.' At that moment I realized that I was seeing what Francis Scott Key had seen when he wrote the Star Spangled Banner."

Oh goodness, if there was ever a story to put the chills on your arms. Mr. Kalus got teary-eyed as he finished by saying that he could never listen to the American Anthem again without thinking of those fearful nights at Iwo Jima and Chosin. 

O say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Korean War Armistice Day

63 years ago today, Armistice was declared and the Korean War came to an end. Our friend, Mr. Thomas, was sent over to Korea in 52' and spent a long six months on the front lines directing artillery fire. Triangle Hill, Old Baldy, and Pork Chop Hill are a few names he'll never forget.

We had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Thomas during our October Honor Flight. We spent many hours on that trip talking with him about Korea, the combat, the cold, and his favorite old-time radio programs. Mr. Thomas was the first Korean War vet we'd really had the chance to talk to at length. At one point he said, "You ask a lot of questions. And you've made me think about things I haven't thought of in 50 years... But that's all right." It was evident with Mr. Thomas that he loved his country, the men he served with, and was happy to fight if it would prevent communism in the world. At the Korean War Memorial in DC, he choked up looking at the life-size statues. "It's so real." He said. "They look so much like the guys I knew." It was a short war that many of us have forgotten. But for soldiers like Mr. Thomas, they'll always remember days like July 27, 1953 when peace was finally declared to war-torn Korean.

I Meet Sir. C. Aubrey Smith; We Talk of Korea, the Cold, and the 5th Marines

“You were at the Chosin?” I was directing this question to an 80-something year old gentleman with a moustache somewhere in between Nigel Bruce and Ron Swanson. His hat said, “Chosin Few,” his lapel pin said 1st Marine Division, and his tie was covered in Marine Corps symbols...  I was asking an obvious question; there was no doubt as to the identification of this character, but it was more a preambulary statement than a query. 

“Yes. I was.” He said a bit gruffly.

I pulled up a seat and sat down next to him. We were in the green room of the Iwo Jima Reunion in Arlington, Virginia, last February. It had been a busy afternoon, and now people were coming in and out of the room with drinks, chatting, and relaxing. 

“It was pretty cold there.” I said to the Chosin vet. 

“You’d better believe it.” He grunted. “Got frostbite on my feet. Couldn’t walk from it.” There was a definitive stress on certain letters in the words he used, sending him up north quite a bit... likely to some part of Massachusetts. 

“I can’t imagine it. I’m from Texas, and we start freezing over when it gets down into the 50s. What keeps you going when it is so cold?”

“Training.” He said simply. “We became robots. We were so reduced by the cold, the only thing that kept us going was our Marine Corps training. We didn’t know what we were doing. But that is where the training became important.” He stated these facts as they were, though with a bit of a shiver in recalling the memory. 

A few weeks previous, I'd been reading up on Chosin, and was delightfully surprised to run into one of the men who fought there, though at an Iwo Jima reunion of all places. 

"American Marines march down a canyon road dubbed "Nightmare Alley" during their retreat from Chosin Reservoir, Korea." Photo by David Douglas Duncan

The Chosin Reservoir Campaign (or Frozen Chosin) summarized: A terrible, complicated battle fought in North Korea between the allies of the United Nations: United Kingdom, South Korea, America, and the United States 1st Marine Division, against the North Koreans and Red Chinese during the winter of 1950 (November 27-December 13). 

One of the most iconic photos from the Chosin Reservoir Campaign. "A dazed, hooded Marine clutches a can of food during his outfit's retreat from the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, December 1950". Photo by David Douglas Duncan

Some have compared it to the Battle of the Bulge fought in WWII. But the Marines who were at Chosin say it was worse. Our soldiers were poorly fed and poorly equipped, and our high casualty rate was caused more from the extreme temperatures than anything else. The cold was more than unbearable, at times dropping down to -40F. The boots they'd been issued to help with the cold only made their feet sweat profusely during their marches and freeze instantly on stopping. This created many cases of frostbite and trench-foot. It was miserable in the extreme. 

At night the men were warned about falling into too heavy a sleep or zipping up their sleeping bags. They might not awake from the former (many froze to death in their sleep), and as for the latter... the cold could freeze the zippers shut, making them easy prey for the Red Chinese who had no qualms about slitting the throats of defenseless Marines trapped in their bags.

And then, there was the most nightmarish part of it all. The enemy was unceasing. Every single Korean combat vet I've spoken with has told me the same thing almost verbatim: "The enemy never stopped coming. Charging forward madly, with an endlessness to them. It didn't matter how many you took down with fire, they continued, and continued, until all were too exhausted to go further." Just like your worst nightmare when no matter how hard you strive, all your efforts are in vain, nothing you do seems to help anything, and the situation only gets more desperate. (To get a better understanding of the Chosin Reservoir Campaign I recommend reading here). 


The U.S. Retreat at Chosin Reservoir

As I talked with this Chosin vet, his gruffness began to wear off, and I saw underneath a charm similar to the dashing old actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Sir C. Aubrey Smith. True confession, when I was very young, this screen actor had made a lasting impression on me as the ultimate charming old gentleman. His portrayal of the gallant Colonel Zapt in Prisoner of Zenda, or the grumpy-but-with-a-heart-of-gold grandfather of Little Lord Fauntleroy, were just a few that quite stole my heart. Thus, sitting across from this fascinating and delightful curmudgeon from Massachusetts (who in every way seemed to characterize Sir Smith), it felt like I was being taken on a virtual trip to the battlefields of Korea, personally guided by Sir C. Aubrey Smith, only with a strong Massachusetts accent and Marine Corps written all over him.


"How long were you at Chosin?" I asked, interested in continuing the conversation. 

"Till the middle of December, when I was wounded." Said Sir Smith (as I shall call him). "My sergeant sent me to the back for medical attention. When I got there, I was told they had no place for me and to go back to the front. I made the hike to the front lines again and got bawled out for returning. The sergeant sent me back again. This time I told them how it was and what was what, so I stayed back till I got shipped home."

His 6-month war in Korea was over. 

"And you were in the 5th Marines?" I checked.

"Yes indeed. The best regiment in the Marine Corps!" 

"I don't doubt it," I said, amused. "Actually, I just finished reading a book about a brother regiment of yours - A Company, 7th Marines... Baker 1/7 I believe it's called.”

Hardly had the words "7th Marines" come out of my mouth when there was a virtual explosion from Sir Smith. 

“Bah. Those 7th Marines! They’re no good at all. Always behind the action at a safe distance, making us do all the dirty work. We take a hill, they get the glory. Those no good....” My charming friend was obviously not biased at all. 

A friend of his nearby turned and said, “Bob, isn’t that the Company with the Chinese guy in the pink vest?”

“Kurt Lee. Yes," said Sir Smith with a chuckle. "The fellow was crazy. Always running into battle with that ghastly pink vest so that his men would always know where he was at all times.”  

“So you saw his pink vest then?” I was thrilled. Lieutenant Kurt Chew-Een Lee was a truly remarkable soldier. The first Marine Corps officer of Chinese decent, he quite proved the mettle he was made of during the Korean War. Gallantly leading his men into action, he would holler out orders in Mandarin, successfully causing disarray and confusion in the ranks of the Red Chinese. Then he would wildly attack them with little care for his own protection. His men watched in awe as Lt. Lee stood tall and straight, marching about and giving orders during the hottest parts of the fighting, seemingly unaware of the hundreds of bullets whizzing around him. Eventually, he was wounded, but he did not allow this to interfere with his duty. Indeed, he and another Marine made a daring escape from the American hospital to return to the front, despite being covered in bandages and wrappings. No, nothing mental or physical would ever come in the way of this brave Marine's determination. 

And as far as the pink vest was concerned, if he thought it would inspire his men, than who cared if it made him the perfect target for the Red Chinese?

Lt. Kurt Chew-Een Lee in Korea

Sir Smith guffawed at my excitement over the vest, “Of course I did! Everyone did! He didn’t seem to realize the enemy would also see where he was at all times. What did he think anyways? He could have gotten us all killed. There is no place on the battlefield for foolish heroics.” 

I couldn’t help laughing. These “foolish heroics” Sir Smith spoke of (and highlighted above) had awarded Lt. Lee none other than the Navy Cross, the second-highest military decoration for valor given by the United States.

“Besides,” his eyes twinkled, “He was in the 7th Marines that...”

I had to laugh again. The 7th Marines may not have been up to Sir Smith's standards, but with men like Lt. Lee in their ranks, they were certainly a fighting force to be reckoned with.


With "Sir Smith" at the Iwo Jima Reunion in February (Photo Credit: Dean Laubach

With "Sir Smith" at the Iwo Jima Reunion in February (Photo Credit: Dean Laubach

But though we joked about the eccentricities of the officers, the events of the summer, fall, and winter of 1950 had left a deep and terrible impression on Sir Smith. He told me that the reality of what he had gone through was finally catching up on him. About 50 years after his service in the Marine Corps, he suddenly started having nightmares about the fighting in Korea. He dreamed about things he'd seen or done that hadn't crossed his mind in decades, and out of the blue thoughts attacked him that left him with little mental peace. 

"I have to go to a PTSD group now." He told me somewhat grimly. "I'm the oldest guy there. All the others are soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. It doesn't help much, but I keep going." 

We all know that the end-date of a war doesn't mean it's over in the minds of the fellas who fought there, but it's still hard every time I hear it from their own mouths; that each day they are re-fighting the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, or Iwo Jima, or Normandy. Thankfully, though, my new friend has a tenacious fighting spirit and probably wouldn't allow himself to be easily overcome by these nightmares.

We talked for some time more, till the dinner bell rang concluding the weekend. It was a lovely time I spent chatting with Sir Smith. Learning from such a charming curmudgeon about the rougher side of Chosin combat (as well as a few humorous anecdotes) was a remarkable experience. It is regretful that so few know anything of the Korean War, or even the Chosin Reservoir Campaign. The difficulties of Chosin were practically unparalleled in American history. That any could survive it is truly a miracle. But they did, and once again I was reminded of the endurance of the human spirit when it is put to the test - especially the United States Marine Corps at Chosin. 

Remembering the Forgotten War

This is the 66th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War conflict, a terrible and bitter event in American history... Though I've been nominally aware of the Korean War for some time now, it's only in the last 12 months or so that I've really begun to get a grip on the tragic events of 1950-1953. Last year, knowing that I had interest in this area, my grandmother sent me an excellent little book of first hand accounts, published for the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. You could say that after reading the book, the fire was lit and I was quite anxious to learn more. 

Since then, we've had the pleasure of pleasure of meeting some really charming and remarkable men from this sad war. In honor of the anniversary, we'll be sharing some of their stories the next few days so that their war will no longer be called, "The Forgotten War".

Korean War Veterans Memorial. Photo Credit: Shaun Moss Photography 

A Korean War Veteran's Story

A few months ago, at a Victory Japan Remembrance day event, we had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Creswell (right), a combat veteran of the Korean War. He was in tears as he thanked Mr. Slief (left), for his service in WWII. "I'm wearing my uncle's hat," he said. "He was on a bombing mission and never came back. They found this hat in his locker. I wear it to all events like this. I'll never forget him. Really, you guys are my heroes. I just missed the war. I went in in 1950 and all my trainers and were WWII veterans. They called me "kid" like I was their younger brother and they taught me how to fight. If it hadn't been for you guys, I would have been killed." Pointing to his ear he said, "See this ear? In Korea, a Chinese soldier came at me with his bayonet and was going to stab me. I ducked and he sliced my cheek and cut that piece off my ear. I had to have 222 stitches on my face. My girlfriend called me scarface. If the WWII guys hadn't taught me how to fight, I wouldn't have made it. I owe everything to you all. You're my heroes. Thank you."

Growing up Mr. Creswell sold newspapers on the streets of Burbank, California (just down the road from his good friend Debbie Reynolds). "You guys were out there making the headlines and I was selling them." When we asked what his biggest headline was, he told us, "the Invasion of France. I was in school and the paper man came and told me to come sell papers. He gave me these huge stacks. All afternoon I sold them [for a nickle] a penny profit for me, making $30 the end of the day."