For Jim Firebaugh, seeing all those monuments in Washington D.C. was great, but what he remembers most fondly on his recent Heartland Honor Flight was being with old comrades.
“It was wonderful to see these living guys,” he said. “It was enjoyable to be with them.”
Firebaugh, 90, was one of 29 World War II veterans to make the trip Sept. 29. There were 85 total on a charter flight that left Kansas City at 6:30 a.m. including vets from Korea and Vietnam.
Their day-long adventure didn’t end until an honor guard and a big crowd greeted them back here at 10 p.m.
In between, Firebaugh had a whirlwind bus tour, starting with the World War II Memorial, stops at all the other major war memorials, the Lincoln Memorial, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and finally the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery.
The Prairie Village resident said it was an overwhelming emotional experience for many of the men at Arlington.
He hadn’t thought much about his World War II service since resuming his life as a civilian more than 70 years ago.
Firebaugh grew up on a farm in St. John, Kan., and enlisted the day before he turned 18 so he could choose the Navy rather than take his chances in the draft.
After boot camp in Farragut, Idaho, he was assigned to the U.S.S. Block Island, an aircraft carrier assigned to South Pacific duty. It was the second ship to bear the name, its predecessor having been sunk by a German submarine in the Atlantic.
Firebaugh remembered the big convoys his ship accompanied, the planes taking off from his carrier to attack the Japanese island fortifications and how some of those pilots never made it back.
The danger also came close to him.
“When you’d see a ship torpedoed or hit by a Kamikaze at night, you’d see the flames for miles and you sat there and wondered if you’d be torpedoed next,” he said.
After the war, he returned to the farm for a few months before going to college. He worked as an insurance salesman here before retiring.
It was his grand-daughter, Lindsey Bock, who approached him about the trip on Heartland Honor Flight. The organization provides opportunities for aging veterans to be saluted for their service by organizing a free trip for them to D.C. The only cost is for the guardian who accompanies them.
“I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I though it would be something to go to and enjoy,” Firebaugh said.
Bock wanted to be sure her “Pop Pop,” the nickname for her grandfather, had a wonderful experience and asked friends and family to write letters or cards to him for a scrapbook. She wanted 100 responses, and got over 200.
“I’d always heard of Honor Flight, but I wasn’t familiar with it,” she said. “I was privileged to be his guardian.”
On the flight out, the plane was decorated in patriotic colors and several women who call themselves the “Kansas City Betty’s,” a volunteer veteran’s service organization, planted big kisses on the vets with their bright red lipstick.
“I ducked down and she saw me,” Firebaugh said. “She gave me a great big kiss.”
Four buses were waiting at Reagan National Airport to ferry the vets around. The day was a bit damp and windy, but Boch said everyone enjoyed themselves.
And on the flight back, the Kansas City Betty’s yelled “mail call” and came around delivering letters to the men. Firebaugh was delighted at the stack of letters, cards and kids’ drawings his grand-daughter had arranged.
“She gets things done,” he said.
An estimated 2,500 people were at KCI when the flight returned and bagpipes adding to the festive mood. Firebaugh said he’d recommend the trip to any of his old colleagues.
“I’d tell them if they’re old, they’d better do something now and not wait until next month,” he said.
He’s also looking forward to a reunion of his trip that will be held Nov. 8 at the Kauffman Foundation.