NEGAUNEE - Howard Lehto doesn't want this story to be about him.
But the Negaunee resident, as a World War II U.S. Army veteran, recently had an experience he hopes every other WWII veteran in the Upper Peninsula can share. So this story must be at least a bit about him.
Lehto, 84, found out about the Old Glory Honor Flight program from his daughter-in-law, Candy Lehto, who is assistant superintendent of the Oconto Falls, Wis., school district. Candy encouraged Howard to fill out an application for the program, which provides free trips to Washington, D.C., to allow World War II veterans to visit the memorial that honors their service.
Howard Lehto, 84, of Negaunee stands in front of the Michigan pillar at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. Lehto visited the memorial as part of a contingent of veterans on the Old Glory Honor Flight. (Photo courtesy of Ron Collien)
"I sent in an application, but couldn't go the first time (a flight was offered)," Howard Lehto said. "But then there was a flight I could go on."
That flight, which left June 9 from Appleton, Wis., took Lehto and scores of other veterans on a journey some 60 years in the making.
"They didn't dedicate the World War II Memorial until 2004," he said. "And now there's an organization trying to get as many GIs to see it as possible. They say that World War II vets are dying at a rate of 1,000 a week, so it's important to be able for the GIs to go as soon as possible."
Lehto took his flight with the Northeast Wisconsin chapter of the Honor Flight program. He and his wife, Loraine, drove to Appleton, with the flight to the nation's capital leaving quite early in the morning.
"We went there and came back all in the same day," he said.
What a day this group of WWII vets had.
Each was given a blue T-shirt to wear with the Old Glory program logo emblazoned on it and all contingencies were covered, Lehto said.
"During the trip, there was one escort for every two GIs," Lehto said. "There was a doctor, several nurses and some people trained in EMS. They had walkers and wheelchairs and a defribilator. There were even umbrellas in case it rained."
The flight took the veterans to Washington, D.C., landing them at Reagan National Airport where they deplaned, then boarded a bus. From that point, the veterans visited the World War II Memorial first, then other sites like the Lincoln Memorial, Korean Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Iwo Jima Memorial and the Air Force Memorial.
The group then traveled to Arlington National Cemetery where the men and women witnessed the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Once back on the plane, another special moment occurred.
"We had mail call," Lehto said. "It was fashioned after our World War II mail calls."
Each veteran on the flight heard his or her name called. In an envelope for each was a letter from a member of his/her own family, or if that wasn't possible, from a school child, thanking the veteran for his/her service.
By 9:20 p.m. EDT, the flight returned to Appleton, but the trip wasn't over. Not quite yet.
"We got off that plane and there were at least 500 people at the airport," Howard Lehto said.
"I'd say it was closer to a thousand," Loraine Lehto said. "And there was a band."
The WWII veterans were greeted by color guards and hundreds of people waving flags and cheering for them in a special salute, the kind of welcome they didn't receive at the end of the war, but one they certainly earned.
Although he was reluctant to be the focus on this article, Howard Lehto was willing to share his experience in hope of stirring others to do the same.
"Quite a few of these GIs are their 90s now," he said. "Everybody should have the chance to do this, to see our memorial."
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.