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Northern Valley Honor Flight: Local World War II veterans visit National Memorial

From left are Karel Knutson of Laporte and John Liapis and Clyde Knapp, both of Bemidji, local World War II veterans who recently visited the National WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. More than 100 World War II veterans from the region were able to take the two-day trip free of charge as a result of donations collected by Northern Valley Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

They came, they saw, they laughed, they cried -- but mostly, they remembered.

World War II veterans from the region visited the National WWII Memorial from Sept. 25-26 in Washington, D.C.

The trip was sponsored by the Northern Valley Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization created to honor America's World War II veterans from the region. NVHF gathers local donations so veterans can be flown to Washington free of charge.

"It was fabulous. You can't imagine the detail the people behind the scenes went through to do things for us," said Karel Knutson, a World War II veteran from Puposky.

Knutson enlisted in the Army in 1942. He served as a staff sergeant in the 361st Field Artillery Battery and took part in the amphibious D-Day invasion before being honorably discharged from the Army in 1946.

NVHF was formed by Earl Morse, a retired Air Force captain and physicians assistant at a veterans' health facility.

The organization began when one of Morse's patients told him he would never see the National WWII Memorial because he felt too old. Morse, a licensed pilot, began flying local veterans on weekend day-trips to see the Memorial.

The NVHF reports that by the time the memorial was completed in 2004, more than 65 percent of all World War II veterans had already died. Having now completed a second regional trip, NVHF hopes to give every World War II veteran a chance to visit Washington.

The NVHF itinerary kept the participants plenty busy. The trip began Friday with the group reporting for duty at Red River High School in Grand Forks, N.D. Then they loaded the buses for the Grand Forks International Airport.

After arriving in Washington, their first stop was the National WWII Memorial.

"It was humbling. They had water cannons going off and police sirens saluting us when we arrived," said Knutson.

Many were surprised when Bob Dole, a retired U.S. senator from Kansas and a World War II veteran, visited the group.

Clyde Knapp, a World War II veteran from Bemidji, said he had kept track of Dole ever since Dole was wounded in World War II.

"I heard he visited with every Honor Flight, so I expected him to be there," said Knapp, who enlisted in the Army in 1943 and served in the 179th Field Artillery in France, Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany. Knapp said his infantry captured the Japanese embassy in Prague, Czech Republic, before he was honorably discharged from the service in 1945.

"I cut out a picture of Bob Dole from the Bemidji Pioneer and showed it to him. He said he looked a lot younger then," said Knapp. "I talked to him, but couldn't shake his hands because they were too fragile."

After leaving the National Memorial, the veterans visited the Lincoln, Vietnam and Korean memorials before heading to their motel for the night. That evening the veterans attended a banquet.

"We found Army K-rations on our tables," said Knutson. "But they weren't anything like what we would've eaten - they were filled with candy."

Families and friends of the veterans were asked ahead of time by the NVHF to write thank you letters for the veterans to read during the banquet. School children throughout North Dakota and Montana also sent letters to the veterans thanking them for their service.

"We received actual V-Mails that looked like the ones we used to get. I sent one student a letter back thanking them," said Knutson.

On Saturday, the veterans awoke for breakfast rations at 6 a.m.

Saturday was a busy day. The veterans visited Arlington National Cemetery, the Kennedy Family grave sites and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They witnessed the Changing of the Guard Ceremony and saw the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, the White House, Ford's Theater, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and other sites before heading back to Dulles International Airport.

John Liapis, a World War II veteran from Bemidji, described the emotional experience he felt after they arrived at the Grand Forks airport after a long flight.

"We arrived almost three hours late from flight delays," said Liapis. "But there were almost 100 people waiting for us and shaking our hands at the airport," said Liapis.

Liapis enlisted in the Navy in 1943. He served as a radio man while stationed on the U.S.S. Gleaves DD-423 destroyer ship. Liapis was honorably discharged twice - once in 1946 and then again after he was recalled to serve in the Korean War.

When the veterans arrived at Red River High School from the airport, they were greeted by bleachers full of people cheering and waiving to them, said Liapis.

"It was very emotional to see how people who didn't know any of us could treat us that way," he said. "This is something I'll remember for a long time."

The veterans were given personalized dog tags and certificates of honorable discharge from NVHF.

"Thank goodness for volunteers and people that support our veterans," said Bonnie Jevning, Knutson's daughter. "They need to be thanked."