Editor’s Note: The following is a revised version of a story that appeared in The McDowell News in May 2017.
Two veterans from McDowell County, along with others like them, journeyed last year to Washington, D.C. where there are vivid reminders of why we observe Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
Those reminders are engraved upon the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And the reasons for Memorial Day and Veterans Day also lie side-by-side underneath white markers along the rolling green hills of Arlington National Cemetery.
But Jim Gorst and Clyde Silver need no reminders of the cost of freedom. They saw it firsthand on the other side of the world.
And after more than 50 years, their fellow countrymen showed them how much they appreciated what they and other veterans have done for our nation.
Gorst and Silver saw all of these memorials and more when they and other veterans were able to travel earlier this month to the nation’s capital as part of the latest Honor Air Flight from western North Carolina. They were the only two veterans from McDowell who flew on this Honor Air Flight trip.
Both Gorst and Silver were the guest speakers at Thursday’s regular meeting of the Rotary Club of Marion where they shared their experiences as veterans who traveled on the Honor Air Flight.
In recent years, the Rotary Club of Marion has sponsored local veterans in these one-day trips to Washington. They leave in the morning from the Asheville Airport and arrive home by that night. During the Honor Air Flight, they see the national memorials to those who have fought for our country in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts. These trips are done at no cost to the veteran.
In recent years, the emphasis was on taking World War II veterans on the trip. But now as the World War II generation is passing from the scene, Honor Air Flight is now taking more Korean War veterans and veterans of the Vietnam War who have life-threatening conditions, said Rotarian Frank Dean, who is a retired Army lieutenant colonel and has been a guardian on these trips.
Gorst, 85, served 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is a veteran of both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He also participated in two of the most famous battles of the 20th century. He was there for the successful amphibious invasion and battle of Inchon in South Korea which turned the tide for the Korean War. And later, he fought at the bloody Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968 during the Vietnam War.
Gorst said many Korean War veterans like himself were met with indifference from the American public when they returned home. It was already becoming “The Forgotten War.”
“I don’t think folks realized what was taking place,” he said.
But years later when the men and women from the fighting in Vietnam came home, they were met with hostility and abuse from their fellow Americans.
“They remembered us,” said Gorst. “They remembered us in so many terrible ways. We were just serving our country that we loved.”
The people who fought in both conflicts never got a hero’s welcome when they came back to their country, unlike the veterans of World War II.
Silver, 83, served for four years in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. He was assigned to the destroyer USS Uhlmann that was stationed out of Japan. This ship was part of a fast carrier task force which patrolled the coast of Korea. Silver said Gorst and other ground troops endured temperatures of 40 degrees below zero while he was onboard that destroyer.
“That’s cold,” said Silver. “We stood watch at sea but when we got done, we went down to a warm bunk and a hot meal.”
For a while, Gorst did not know if he really wanted to go on this trip.
“As the time grew closer, I felt I really did not want to take the flight,” he said. “But I persevered and the week before the flight, Col. Dean picked me up to attend our orientation at First Baptist Church in Asheville.”
On Saturday, May 13, 2017, Dean picked up both Gorst and Silver and took them to the Asheville Airport for the Honor Air Flight. There, they and other veterans were greeted by active duty military personnel in full uniform who gave them a proper sendoff.
When the Honor Air Flight group arrived at Reagan National Airport in Washington, they were met by more than 600 veterans, women and children. They traveled in four buses to Arlington National Cemetery where they witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“It’s humbling to see those places,” said Silver. “You look across acres and acres of men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country.”
They also visited the World War II Memorial, located between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. At the Korean War Veterans Memorial, a representative from the South Korean Embassy presented them and the other on the Honor Air Flight with a special medal thanking them for what they did for that country from 1950 to 1953. This medal was made out of melted barbed wire that came from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). On the medal’s ribbon, it reads “Korea will forever be grateful.”
The group next traveled to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also known as The Wall. Gorst knew this would be an emotional experience for him.
“I’ve got friends engraved on that wall,” he said. “I can’t look at it. It’s too heartbreaking.”
Silver was seated next to a man who suffered from dementia. This man was also a veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam wars and was also suffering from cancer due to his exposure to Agent Orange.
They also visited the Air Force Memorial.
For Gorst, Silver and other veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars, this journey and the hero’s reception they received was long overdue.
“It’s a long time coming,” said Gorst. “It’s the beginning of a healing process that needs to take place for all veterans.”
He urged the Rotarians to show their appreciation to those who have served our nation. “If you just say ‘thank you,’ it reaches the heart and it reaches the mind,” said Gorst.
Silver said he remembers the welcome home reception that the World War II veterans received when they came home. He was 12 years old at that time.
“They were treated as heroes,” he said.
Those who fought in Korea had to wait nearly 60 years for their welcome home reception.
“That is what Blue Ridge Honor Air Flight does for veterans,” he added.