Jim Stephenson of Selma served in the Army during the Korean War and later became a teacher. Unfortunately, one of his former students passed away fighting in the Vietnam War.
Stephenson, 86, was able to travel to Washington and find his student’s name, Eddie Gamora, on the Vietnam Memorial because of the Central Valley Honor Flight.
“We checked on the Vietnam Memorial, and we found his name,” Stephenson said. “That was the highlight. I’ve thought about him often, so we wanted to make sure that we could find his name on the wall.”
Stephenson, along with 67 other veterans, traveled to Washington on the honor flight to visit the war memorials. The honor flight honors local veterans by sending them to see their war memorials at no cost.
The veterans, guardians and volunteers flew out of Fresno Yosemite International Airport on Oct. 9 and returned two days later. This was the second Central Valley Honor Flight in 2017. Over 1,000 veterans have gone on the 14 flights since the first trip in 2013.
Mark Hopkins, Honor Flight president and trip leader, took over from former president Al Perry this year. He said each trip costs $180,000 and is funded by donations.
Hopkins, a retired paramedic and now a manager at Island Waterpark in Fresno, said his father, a Vietnam veteran, was a guardian for one of the previous flights. The experience pushed his father to open up for the first time about his experiences in the war.
“Now I have that bit of history that I can pass on to my kids to tell them what their grandfather did and those are things that are not lost anymore,” Hopkins said. “That’s really what Honor Flight, in essence, is about – something that’s lost and re-found. It’s so exciting to see these guys finally get what they deserve – seeing their memorials.”
In addition to Stephenson, three other veterans from Selma were on the flight: David Barber, Cass Parada and Frank Yanes. Ivan Wohlgemuth was the only veteran from Kingsburg.
Wohlgemuth, 86, was very surprised when he arrived at the Korean War Memorial on the second day of the trip.
American and South Korean generals were at the memorial performing a ceremony for the victims of the war.
“I thought it was a wonderful thing,” Wohlgemuth said. “We never expected to see our generals and officials and the Korean army generals.”
Wohlgemuth said he “enjoyed the camaraderie with the other veterans” and was impressed with them. Also, he said that the wars are all hard and presented challenges, but “we’ve come through it.”
Wohlgemuth was in the Army and served as a medic. He was stationed in Korea from the end of 1952 to the beginning of 1954. Before the armistice took place, he was called to help out with prisoner exchange at the 38th parallel.
Along with the Korean War Memorial, the veterans visited the Vietnam War Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Navy Memorial, the Air Force Memorial, the Women in Military Service for America Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
Stephenson served as a high-speed radio operator mostly in Germany and he is very grateful for having the opportunity to go on the honor flight.
“It was an amazing trip,” Stephenson said. “They’re so well organized. We just saw so much stuff, that a person would never get a chance to do that in their lifetime.”
At the end of the trip, the veterans arrived home to 80 active-duty Navy men and women saluting them and over 1,000 people welcoming them home.
Stephenson didn’t expect to see such a large crowd.
“Coming home, the reception that we received at the terminal was just amazing,” Stephenson said. “We figured there would be a few people out there, some family and friends, but it was just amazing.”
For Hopkins, the welcome home at the airport was the perfect ending to the trip.
“This is our way of saying, ‘Thank you for what you did,’ and honoring them for all that they sacrificed during that time,” Hopkins said. “And some people sacrificed their life, and we need to remember that. This country would not be where it is today if it wasn’t for these people that sacrificed so much. So, this welcome home signifies all that put together.”
Four honor flights are planned for next year, including a trip specifically for Vietnam veterans. To donate, go to the Central Valley Honor Flight’s website, www.cvhonorflight.org and click on the donate button.
Anyone interested in applying to go on a future flight as a veteran, guardian or volunteer can apply online on the website or by downloading the applications and mailing them in. The donate button and the applications are found on the right-hand side of the website’s homepage.