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Honor of a lifetime

Nov 1, 2012


By Starla Pointer
Of the News-Register



Seventy years after he served in World War II, Dan Lawler went on the journey of a lifetime: an Honor Flight to visit the memorials in Washington, D.C.

“It’s probably the most awesome trip I’ve ever had, and I’m just about 88 years old,” Lawler told fellow veterans at a recent McMinnville Band of Brothers meeting. He since has celebrated that 88th birthday, which fell on Oct. 26.

The Honor Flight has been taking veterans to the capital since 2005. Oregon’s first flights came in 2010.

Several other McMinnville residents, including female veterans Peggy Lutz and Sharkey Meyer, have also been chosen for all-expense-paid trips.

The Honor Flights are fully supported by donations. Organizers take another group whenever they have accumulated enough cash and in-kind donations.

Currently, only WWII vets are eligible. After all interested vets from that era have traveled, the program will move to those from other wars.

Lawler joked, “I was so impressed, I told them I’d grow a beard and change my appearance so I could go again next year.”

Lawler grew up in Madison, S.D. Shortly after starting college, he joined the reserves, figuring he would serve after he finished his schooling.

His father, a World War I veteran, supported his decision to sign up for the reserves. The elder Lawler always advised his son to volunteer rather than let himself be drafted.

Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. officially entered the war. In early 1942, Lawler exchanged his school books for a uniform.

Like many of his contemporaries, he wanted to be a pilot, so he started as a flight cadet But he washed out.

It was a big disappointment at the time, he said, but now he feels fortunate he didn’t have to fly combat missions.

He served as a radar mechanic with the 15th Air Force, 345th Squad, 98th Bomb Group stationed in Italy.

His job was to make sure the radar was tuned to the right frequency before each mission. This helped American planes make it through the mountain passes of the Alps, where German anti-aircraft guns were set up.

Later in the war, he was transferred to the 2nd Air Force and sent to Tucson, Ariz., to train on B-52 bombers. He was scheduled for deployment to the Pacific Theater, but the war ended first.

Given the choice of remaining in the service or going home, he chose to return to South Dakota and his schooling.

In 1947, he married his fiancée, Lois. They had three children before moving to Oregon in 1953, and two more after their arrival.

Lawler taught junior high math in Vernonia and Beaverton. He also traveled the Pacific Northwest selling educational films, back in the day when 16 millimeter was considered high tech.

He and his wife settled in McMinnville after their retirement.

Lawler first heard about the Veterans Honor Flights  from his brother-in-law, Don Solem of Lewiston, Idaho, who went on one a few years ago. Describing it as “the best thing that ever happened,” the former Seabee urged the McMinnville man to apply as well.

After being reminded several times, Lawler finally filled out an application. Many months passed before he heard from the Honor Flight organizers, but when they finally called, they meant business.

“It was a Tuesday,” he recalled. “They said, ‘We’re going Thursday. Can you go?’”

He checked with his doctor, who gave him a green light. By Wednesday afternoon, he was on his way to Portland to join the contingent.

The veterans stayed overnight at the Shilo Inn so they could catch an early plane to Chicago. Then it was on to Baltimore.

“We were the first on the aircraft, the first through security,” Lawler said.

Each veteran was accompanied by a companion. In some cases, it was a younger relative; in others, a stranger who’d volunteered so that more veterans would have the chance to go.

While the trip was free for the vets, the companions paid their own way.

When they arrived in Baltimore, the Honor Flight participants from Oregon were joined by a group of four from Alaska.

Together, they were met by a double line of local volunteers. The welcoming committee shook hands and wished the veterans good luck, which was really appreciated by the visitors.

Upon returning to Portland, they would receive the same kind of greeting.

After a night in Baltimore, the honored veterans were bused to Washington, D.C. After going through a security check, they toured the Capitol.

Each veteran was given a 3-by-5-foot flag that had flown over the building. Oregon Rep. Greg Walden had their names read into the Congressional Record that day as well.

The next morning, they headed for the World War II memorial, a motorcycle escort leading the way. The biker told Lawler he’d escorted more than 80 groups of veterans, as he would never miss a chance to honor them.

Lawler and the other WWII veterans were touched by the memorial.

Located between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, it features a circle of marble stones, each representing a state that sent residents to serve in the European or Pacific theaters.

A wall of sculpted gold stars honors the Americans killed in combat. There are 4,000 stars, each representing 100 dead.

A reflecting pond beneath the wall brings the point home: 400,000 Americans never returned.

“It’s really hard to tell you how great that monument is,” Lawler said, his voice breaking. “It’s fantastic.”

The Oregon and Alaskan veterans also visited the Lincoln Memorial, the Air Force museum, the Navy and Air Force memorials, the Iwo Jima memorial and the Korean War Memorial. The latter features larger than life-size soldiers on patrol.

Lawler felt it was the most striking because the sculptures were so realistic. It really makes a point about how up close and personal war can be, he said.

He said the Vietnam Wall also brings home the realities of war. “You see all those names and think about all those guys who lost their lives,” he said.

That afternoon, they drove to Arlington National Cemetery. They saw the Tomb of the Unknowns and watched the changing of the guard.

“They’re very strict,” Lawler said. “They have to meet very special qualifications to be on that duty.

“Their uniforms are just top-notch. All their actions are very impressive.”

After dinner in Washington, D.C., Lawler and the other honored veterans headed for the airport.

As soon as he reached home, Lawler had a call to make — to his brother-in-law, to express thanks for encouraging him to make the trip.

Lawler is now on a mission to get other McMinnville vets to put their names on the list. “To be able to participate in this ... it’s just a fantastic experience,” he said.

Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or spointer@newsregister.com.

ABOUT THE HONOR FLIGHTS PROGRAM

The Oregon Flight of Honor is part of a nationwide effort to take veterans to Washington, D.C., to see war and service memorials.

Since its debut in 2005, it has facilitated trips for more than 73,000 veterans from 40 different states. Veterans pay nothing for the honor; volunteers who go along as chaperones pay their own expenses.

The nonprofit effort to honor veterans relies on donations, said Oregon coordinator Gail Yakopatz. Donations may be made at Umpqua Bank and Key Bank locations, or mailed to the address listed on the website, located at www.honorflightoforegon.org.

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