NE Iowa native Donald Hanson takes part in Honor Flight, happens to reunite with pair of former classmates from WHS Class of 1964

Classmates reunite on Honor Flight ... A trio of classmates from the Waukon High School Class of 1964 happened to be on the same Eastern Iowa Honor Flight out of Cedar Rapids May 24 of this year, noticing one another on the plane and during one of the tour stops in Washington, DC. Pictured above, left to right, in front of the Amphitheater of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are Donald Hanson of the rural Postville area, Merle Headington of Decorah, and Michael David (more commonly known as David) Johnson of Cedar Rapids. Submitted photo.

Father and son at Lincoln Memorial ... Donald Hanson (left) of the rural Postville area and his son, Joel (right), of Cedar Rapids take a photo with the Lincoln Memorial in the background during a May 24 Eastern Iowa Honor Flight to Washington, DC. While participating in the Honor Flight events, Donald Hanson happened upon two of his former classmates from Waukon High School’s Class of 1964 who were also participating in that same Honor Flight. Submitted photo.

Their days of serving their country ... The trio of classmates from the Waukon High School Class of 1964 who unknowingly ended up on the same Eastern Iowa Honor Flight out of Cedar Rapids May 24 but reunited during the event are pictured here from their days serving in the U.S. military. In the photo above is Merle Headington of Decorah, in the photo at center Michael David (more commonly known as David) Johnson of Cedar Rapids, and in the photo below is Donald Hanson of the rural Postville area. Submitted photos.

by David M. Johnson

The Honor Flights to Washington DC, for individuals who have a military service background, have become a staple the past few years for those veterans.  The events have become an avenue for veterans to be honored for past service and a way for those with military service to enjoy some recognition for their sacrifice as they take in the monuments and events dedicated to the service they gave to their country as a member of the U.S. military.

From World War II through the Persian Gulf/Afghanistan conflict, all individuals who served during this time and were members of any of the military service branches are eligible to take part in the flights. Whether one may have experienced combat or not, the flights are open to all those who are eligible, with veterans who are experiencing health issues getting first priority on the flights.

Donald Hanson, 76, a 1964 Waukon High School graduate who now lives in the rural Postville area, is a local veteran who was eligible for the flight and recently took advantage of that opportunity. His son, Joel Hanson of Cedar Rapids, encouraged his dad to enroll for a seat on the next available flight. Donald agreed and with the assistance of his son, Joel, filled out the necessary paper work. That was three years ago.

In early January of this year, Donald received a call that his wait was over and he could become a passenger, one of many, on the next Eastern Iowa Honor Flight out of Cedar Rapids, with a departure date of May 24. Each veteran participant on the flight has to have someone, other than a spouse, to accompany him or her, so Joel and Donald were part of the Honor Flight that set out May 24 for the nation’s capital.

Leaving Cedar Rapids at 7:15 in the morning and landing at Reagan International Airport in Washington, DC, the plane unloaded its precious cargo. Three buses waited to transport everybody to the numerous sights on the trip’s itinerary.

The stops on the Honor Flight tour included the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial with its rendition of the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi by American Marines, and the Vietnam War Memorial with the awe-inspiring Wall.  There were stops at Arlington National Cemetery, the Air Force Memorial which is situated on a hill so the massive structure of the Pentagon was in full view, plus the Lincoln Memorial.

The stop at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the solemn presence of the Honor Guard left an impression on all. Donald was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the monuments and memorials.

“If the canteens were real on the Iwo Jima Memorial, they would hold 32 quarts of water,” remembered Donald, as he further commented on the size of the Pentagon. “There are 25,000 people who work there but there is only parking spaces for about 10,000 so you must be someone special to get a place to park.”

The Honor Flight Donald took part in ended up having a somewhat unique difference compared to past flights local veterans participated in, as the event also turned out to be somewhat of a miniature version of a high school class reunion.  On the flight, Donald noticed that one of the other passengers was a high school classmate of his. Donald could not remember his name, so he struck up a conversation. The classmate was Merle Headington, who Donald thought still lived in the Decorah area.

Another classmate discovered during the Honor Flight event was Michael David Johnson (better known as Dave Johnson) of Cedar Rapids, who Donald picked out of the crowd when visiting Arlington National Cemetery. Although there would obviously be a lot of catching up to do, the trio did not get much of an opportunity to do so.

“We were so busy with the tour that we did not have a lot of time to talk,” observed Hanson as the three 1964 Waukon High School classmates met in this most unique set of circumstances.

Donald Hanson was drafted and served in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell. As his unit was being shipped to Vietnam, Donald had joined the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, finishing the rest of his service stint in that unit.

Dave Johnson was a member of the 25th Infantry and first reported just north of Saigon, after high school, where he drove truck and then was attached to a unit of APCs, armored personnel carriers. Johnson was in a firefight, receiving some cuts on his hand, but refused a Purple Heart as he thought he was not wounded that badly.

“I wish I had not made that decision,” observed Johnson.

After returning from Vietnam and leaving the service, Johnson entered civilian life and was a plumber’s pipe fitter for a good share of his life until retirement.

Merle Headington is retired and living in Decorah. He spent his last two years of high school in Waukon, after his family moved to a farm between Eitzen, MN and New Albin. His previous schooling was in the Decorah school district. Merle took a test in La Crosse, WI so he could join the Air Force. He joined the Air Force in 1965 and finished up in 1969.

Merle was a crew chief for C130s, stationed out of Taiwan, but was involved in runs from there to Vietnam and back. Supplies were flown in and the planes would always fly something back. One thing that affected Merle deeply was when the plane cargo bay was filled with 75 stretchers carrying some wounded personnel, and some were dead. Merle remembers the moaning from the wounded.

Reentering civilian life Merle was employed by Trane in La Crosse, then worked a number of different jobs from a salesman to a general manager to a company that made concrete products. He and his wife had been living in Cedar Rapids, then retired and moved to Decorah in 2014.

As with Donald, both of his former classmates had their own unique stories that led them to the Honor Flight. Dave’s family assisted with the paperwork which qualified him for the flight. For his chaperone, Dave had to choose between his twin grandsons. The family contacted the Honor Flight organizers, who, in turn, had a veteran with no chaperone so one grandson was given the opportunity to be with that veteran while his brother was with their grandfather, Dave.

Merle’s daughter, Amy, set up the paper work and, when completed, Merle had to wait for that call from the Honor Flight. It took two years and when the call came Merle was ready, joining a close friend who also applied for the flight, plus his daughter, Amy, who was Merle’s escort.

As with Donald, both Dave and Merle were also deeply moved by what they saw, especially the receptions they received when landing in Washington and back in Cedar Rapids. They, like Donald, were impressed when two fire engines with water cannons, one on each side of the landed plane, would shoot water over the plane. There was also the motorcycle escort from the airport to their first stop on the tour.

Merle remembers the announcement of “mail call” when they were flying back to Cedar Rapids, just like when he was in the Air Force. He received 68 pieces of mail from family, neighbors and complete strangers, a similar experience shared by both Donald and Dave.

All three were very impressed and hold a great deal of gratitude to the Honor Flight organization. They saw the hard work of volunteers who gave their time to assist to make these flights a success. All three did not receive a hero’s welcome when they left Vietnam but this experience rectified that bitter experience with joy and satisfaction. As Merle stated, “There were those who felt that they were not properly thanked, but this flight should have taken care of that.”

Despite reuniting during the Honor Flight, the trio of former high school classmates has not made any plans to get together in the future. “No, we did not really discuss anything like that. You have to remember, we had not seen each other for a long time,” replied Hanson, feeling that they all had moved on to different lives and the connection was not necessarily there after so many years, beyond sharing this Honor Flight experience.

The meeting of the classmates was a unique and added bonus for Donald, but the trip to Washington and its sights and events overwhelmed the meeting of these three classmates. All three men were surprised and elated by this encounter with old classmates, but the trip certainly overshadowed this reunion.

“There is so much history there; it was a dream crammed into one day,” added Donald, as the trip was a highlight to himself and others. The thousands waiting for them, the flight and the reunion all made this day very special. On the receptions with the large crowds, Donald chuckled that, “I never shook so many people’s hands in my life.”

The public may not understand the importance of these flights nor the joy and other emotions experienced by the veterans taking part in them. For those who have served in this nation’s military, this - for many like Donald Hanson, Merle Headington and Dave Johnson - was a once in a lifetime venture, and much more than just a footnote - much like their service to their country should also be.