A Korean War veteran from Menahga got a last-minute opportunity to go on a Veterans Honor Flight Oct. 20-21 in Washington, D.C.
Russ Rasmussen was a late addition to the roster for the whirlwind tour of the nation’s monuments, provided by Veterans Honor Flight of North Dakota/Minnesota.
“I got in on this flight at the very last second,” said Rasmussen. “To fill the flight, they called me and, ‘Can you go?’ And I said … ”
He said “yes,” of course. He had applied for a chance to go on an honor flight about a year ago. “I’ve wanted to see it,” he said.
The entire trip for 96 veterans was funded by donations. “It didn’t cost us a thing,” said Rasmussen. “We got royalty treated. … Spouses weren’t allowed to go, but veterans that needed assistance could have somebody along. They had, like, 83 volunteers pushing wheelchairs and stuff.”
The royal treatment included a traffic escort that enabled four busloads of veterans to cut through bumper-to-bumper traffic.
“We just went ‘vroom,’” he said, imitating the sound of police sirens, then laughing. “The traffic was just pulling over. We went just like big celebrities.”
Met other local vets
Rasmussen was one of 57 Army veterans called up for the trip, along with 15 Air Force, six Marine and 18 Navy veterans. The 96 honorees included World War II and post-WWII, Berlin and Cuban crisis, Cold War and Vietnam vets, but 74 of them served in the Korean War era.
Rasmussen was only previously acquainted with one of the veterans in his Honor Flight group, Les Ristinen of Wolf Lake. During the trip, he became acquainted with Korean War veteran Fred Whiteside of Park Rapids.
Other local veterans chosen for the Honor Flight were Asher Burlingame of Ponsford, Larry Conley of Moorhead (originally from Akeley), Sid Lawrence of Park Rapids, Julian Schmitz of Fargo, N.D. (originally from Park Rapids), and several Wadena, Mahnomen and Detroit Lakes residents.
“It was the privilege of a lifetime to go on it, for all the veterans,” said Rasmussen.
Departing Fargo at 7 a.m. on a Sunday and touching down again at 7:50 p.m. Monday, they squeezed a lot of living in between.
Their rainy Sunday included visits to the Air Force and Iwo Jima memorials, the changing of the guard ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial and a banquet at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Va., where they received a “mail call” with handmade thank-you cards from schoolchildren.
Monday, they toured the National Archives, drove by the White House, then visited the Lincoln, Korean War and Vietnam memorials – all before lunch.
Rasmussen recalled taking a long time reading the nation’s founding documents at the Archives. But it was the Korea memorial that meant the most to him personally.
Memorials brought ‘tears to your eyes’
Rasmussen joined the Army in March 1953. After training at Camp Gordon, Ga. and Fort Monmouth, N.J., he sailed from Seattle, by way of San Francisco, first to Japan and then Korea.
Upon landing in Incheon, Korea, he said, “I got stuck in an engineer company overnight or a couple of days, and then the colonel’s Jeep pulled up and (someone) called my name. It took me into Headquarters Company in Chuncheon, Korea. I got to be a classified material clerk.
“I think the reason I got that job,” Rasmussen added, “is because the colonel, the head of our company, was named Rasmussen, too.” He laughed. “I think I got lucky (when) he picked me out.”
A photo from his D.C. trip shows Rasmussen standing by a row of statues of U.S. soldiers wading through a swamp of shrubbery, wearing rain ponchos. “It was always stormy over there, and wet,” he explained.
Monday afternoon featured visits to the WWII memorial, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and the Navy Memorial.
Rasmussen said he found the Vietnam memorial very touching, “and the World War II was, too. All of them were fantastic. It kind of brought tears to your eyes. Some of that stuff was so humbling.”
Military service was worth it
During his service in Korea, Rasmussen traveled to Seoul almost every day in the colonel’s Jeep to fetch a briefcase full of classified messages. Other days, he would ride up to the Demilitarized Zone, close to the Yalu River.
“I never, ever knew what was in that briefcase,” he said. “I just picked it up, and I had control of the safe back in the office. The colonel would ask me to get this or that out, and sometimes he was pretty eager to get some of those messages when I got back. I never knew what they said.”
At times, Corp. Rasmussen would be saluted by mistake as he rode in the colonel’s Jeep “with the big flags on it, all shined up and everything,” he said. “All the guards would come out, thinking I was the colonel.”
He mustered out in March 1955, still ranked as a corporal. Had he stayed on a few weeks longer, he could have made his sergeant’s stripes. Like a lot of men given a choice to serve a bit longer, Rasmussen said, “It would have made a lot of difference in pay, but we wanted to go home.“
Nevertheless, looking back on his Army service, he said, “It was worth it. I’d do it all over again, just like tomorrow. You bet.”
He certainly doesn’t regret going on the Honor Flight. “Unforgettable,” he called it. “Thank you to everybody that donated. It was such an honor. It’s unreal – the care that everybody got. They went 10 times overboard for everybody.”
Describing the cheering crowd and marching band that welcomed them back to Fargo, he said, “We didn’t deserve all that. ... The gratitude that everybody showed you – it was unreal.”