Wayne Hiatt said he has only visited Washington, D.C. twice in his many years of life. His first visit was as a young man during a high school trip in the early 1950s. Earlier this month, he went back to the city not as a student, but as a veteran looking to remember what has been called America’s forgotten war.
Hiatt, a U.S. Army veteran who served during the Korean War, was one of nearly 50 veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War who participated in an honor flight to the U.S. capital. The veterans were given the opportunity to tour monuments dedicated to those who served during wartime. The trip was free of charge to the veterans and offered by Honor Flight DFW.
Hiatt was accompanied on his trip by Michelle Lukehart, who served as his guardian throughout the tour. Lukehart said the veterans were met at the airport, and along their tour, by crowds who cheered them and thanked them for their services.
“That is something that all the Korean and Vietnam war vets never got upon returning home,” Lukehart said. “This is a very emotional time as many of our vets get choked up and are overwhelmed by the gratitude they receive from total strangers in the airport. I have to admit it was overwhelming for me as well and it’s hard to hold back the tears.”
For his part, Hiatt said there was no fanfare when he and other veterans returned from the Korean Peninsula. Instead of being greeted and cheered, he said he went to work and life returned to normal.
“When you got back, nobody mentioned it,” he said.
Honor Flight was started in 2004 as a network of volunteers dedicated to allowing WWII veterans to visit the war memorial. The Dallas-Fort Worth chapter started in late 2008, with its first flight taking place the next year. In June, the organization is slated to conduct its 34th flight.
“Honor Flight DFW is dedicated to honoring our veterans for the sacrifices they have made to keep our nation safe by providing them with an all expense paid trip to visit the memorials in Washington, D.C., those memorials which symbolize the spirit, sacrifice, and commitment of these American heroes,” the organization said on its website.
Hiatt said he was drafted in 1952 and served two years in the army. During his time in the military, Hiatt said he oversaw a rifle platoon and later the use of the M18 recoilless rifle, an anti-armor weapon.
Despite never returning to South Korea, Hiatt said he has seen the changes that have taken place over the past half center that have transformed it from a rural landscape to a developed nation. During the war, the capital of Seoul was mostly tents, huts and bunkers. Thinking back to his service, Hiatt said he could hardly believe what the city has become since.
“When I left over there, the biggest building in Seoul was a two-story building that was half blown up,” he said.
When asked about things he remembered from the war, Hiatt said he can still remember the cold Korean winters. Hiatt compared those to the winters of Canada. He laughed as he noted that the 38th parallel goes through both Korea and his home state of Indiana.
Hiatt said he first learned about Honor Flight from a friend who had retired from the U.S. Marines and had done through three flights previously. Among the sites he visited on the trip, Hiatt said he was most impressed by the Korean War Memorial, which features bronze statues of soldiers, dressed for battle and the harsh Korean weather.
Hiatt said he had a list of friends, many from his hometown, that he wanted to find among the names at the memorial. However, poor weather and a tight schedule prevented him from finding them. He said none of the memories the site brought back were good ones.
“It made you think of everyone you missed out there,” he said.