Thanking Our Veterans
Honor Flight officials seek veterans to travel to Washington, D.C.
Program honors, rewards veterans for their service
EMINENCE, Ky. (August 2017) – Seventy-three years ago, Hershel Raymer was braving the Western Front as an infantryman during the Allied effort in World War II. On a muggy Friday evening in 2017, he’s at home in Eminence, Ky., looking through old pictures of the war he lived.
“That’s my division, right there,” 91 year-old Raymer says, pointing to a group of uniform-clad men in a disheveled French alleyway. “We went through so many of those places that I can hardly remember the names.” The boys are unloading crates from a military truck and hardly look to be in their 20s – mostly younger.
From left, Jeff Thoke poses with veteran Hershel Raymer of Eminence, Ky., during a past Honor Flight visit to Washington, D.C.
Of the 16 million men who served in World War II, only an estimated 600,000 are still around to tell their stories. Men like Raymer are an increasingly rare breed, and no one recognizes this more than Bluegrass Honor Flight director Jeff Thoke. That’s why since 2005, he’s taken countless World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans on free, fully-staffed flights to Washington D.C., where the veterans tour monuments and receive recognition for the sacrifices they made in prior decades.
The Louisville-based Bluegrass chapter is just one of 131 regional Honor Flight hubs across 45 states that transport older veterans to the monuments dedicated to their service. Each flight is free of cost for the veterans. But it includes a waiting list that gives priority to World War II veterans who have yet to be on the flight. The Bluegrass chapter flies two to three times each year and runs entirely on donations.
Each flight is similar in ratio of veterans to staff. “There are usually around 160 people on each reserved flight,” says Thoke. “Eighty of those are veterans – the rest are our guardians and volunteers.”
Those “guardians and volunteers” to whom he’s referring are younger attendees who ensure that each veteran gets any attention he needs throughout the trip. The “volunteers” (mostly made up of doctors or nurses) provide any needed medical assistance on the trip, while Honor Flight “guardians” serve as guides for the veterans and ensure their safety throughout the tour. According to Thoke, it’s also not uncommon for family members to get involved as guardians. “A lot of times the sons or grandsons of the veterans will be the ones to sign up,” he says. “I really couldn’t think of anything more special than that.”
Thoke takes a unique approach to recruiting for his flights. He can be seen driving his 1940s-era military jeep to local events and Oldham County parades, flying U.S. flags and a banner for the Honor Flight Bluegrass chapter.
“One of my goals is to start promoting in more common places, like in parking lots or public places where I can reach more people,” Thoke says. “I also want people to know that the Bluegrass chapter isn’t just for vets in the Louisville area. I want vets in southern Indiana and Ohio and places all around here to know they can be a part of it, too.”
Jeff Thoke of Trimble County, Ky., uses his military jeep to promote the Honor Flight program in the region.
Back at Raymer’s home, the conversation shifts toward how he got into the service in the first place. Like thousands of other Americans ages 18 to 25, Raymer was drafted following the losses at D-Day in June 1944.
“I got my draft letter in November of 1944,” Raymer says, reflecting on the start of his military career. “In December I was examined, and by January I was in uniform.”
From there, Raymer trained with the 89th Infantry Division and entered the fight in Le Havre, France. He fought across thousands of miles through France, Belgium and Germany as a machine gunner, facing adverse conditions and liberating concentration camps along the way. After the war in Europe ended, he was sent home on leave, not long before he received news of Japan’s surrender. Although the fight was finally over, Raymer was still needed to train recruits at bases in Missouri in Texas due to the “point system” that granted soldiers discharge based on length of service.
Raymer recalls that during the war, the only items he and his comrades had to protect themselves against the cold were their uniforms and individual Army tents, which he remembers as having little insulation. “We would usually eat about twice a day,” he reflects. “Sometimes what rations we had would even freeze over.”
Much of Raymer’s story also lies within the artifacts he keeps around his home. He displays a standard M1 helmet just like the one he wore during the war, and it’s heavier than expected. The helmet served other purposes than protection, Raymer explains, as he points to a detachable lining on the inside of the helmet.
“We used to take that part out and heat up water in it whenever we were near a creek and wanted to shave. That’s not the helmet I wore, but it’s just like the one I had.”
Also on display are some older articles about his service, family photos and, most notably, his mantle display.
Adorning the mantle is a commemorative quilt dedicated to those who served in World War II, a box full of the medals he earned and portraits of his family. Raymer’s five brothers are all in military uniform in the portraits and, one by one, he describes where they served and what they saw.
One of his brothers helped in the occupation of postwar Germany, while another fought the Japanese and the brutality of foreign disease in New Guinea. One was an Air Force mechanic stationed in Iceland, while another was living out his Coast Guard career in the Philippines. Each man has a story, and on May 10, Raymer was honored for his.
After boarding a plane in Louisville around 7 a.m. and an hour-long flight to Washington, D.C., Raymer and the other veterans were bused out of JFK Airport and given a police escort to the National World War II Memorial.
In a fashion similar to previous Honor Flights, the veterans were greeted by none other than Kentucky senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. From there, the veterans toured the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Memorial.
“Visiting certain memorials, like Vietnam’s, feels much more somber than visiting others,” Thoke recalls.
After touring the monuments, the group headed back to the airport for dinner and open surprise “letters from home” written by loved ones grateful for their sacrifice. Thoke recalls this as being an emotional part of the trip.
The show isn’t over for the veterans once they re-board for Louisville, however. Upon arriving back at Louisville International Airport, the veterans were treated to a welcoming ceremony where more than 1,000 people cheered, shook hands with the veterans and thanked them for their service.
“It brought up a lot of memories for me,” Raymer recalls, thankful for the experience. “Even though most of us (the veterans) didn’t know one another, we were still happy to see each other. I never did talk about the war much until Thoke came along and asked me about it.”
Another World War II veteran, Glenn Fisher of Bedford, Ky., took the flight in 2014 and remembers the trip as “awe inspiring.” The 90-year-old enlisted when he was 16 and has since lived a decorated military career, receiving the French Medal of Honor and even meeting the likes of Harry S. Truman.
He remains active today as a soil conservation director for Bedford United Methodist Church and as a bank director. At the World War II Memorial, he remembers being given hand-written letters of appreciation by children visiting the site. Fisher also assisted other veterans during the trip and was one of the few who chose not to sit in a wheelchair.
“We just can’t thank Jeff enough,” Fisher says, noting that the other veterans call Thoke their “father figure.”
“He just can’t do enough for us World War II veterans, no matter what it is.”
• For more information on Honor Flight Bluegrass, visit www.HonorFlightBluegrass.org or contact Jeff Thoke at (502) 645-5421. To read about Glenn Fisher’s life, career and Honor Flight Experience, see the archived story at our website at: www.RoundAboutMadison.com under the Archived Articles page for July 2014.
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