Fred Harres’ spirits soared to new heights when he traveled to Washington, D.C., last Tuesday via the Land of Lincoln Honor Flight for veterans.
The Korean War veteran from Columbia experienced what only 78 other veterans took part in that day — an all-expenses paid day trip to D.C., during which he could explore the many monuments, memorials and other tributes to United States war heroes.
“We didn’t have time to stand around,” Harres said of visiting the many landmarks.
The Land of Lincoln Honor Flight provides flights to World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans, in which World War II veterans are given first priority, then Korean and then Vietnam. For more information or to fill out an application to participate in one of the honor flights, go to www.landoflincolnhonorflight.org. The organization plans a limited number of flights per year.
Harres happened to make the cut for a Sept. 13 flight that included other Korean War veterans. His favorite part of the trip was seeing the Korean War Memorial. This memorial consists of a row of bushes arranged to represent the rice paddies of Korea, with statues of soldiers trudging through the paddies.
“I don’t know how they did it, but if you look at the wall (across from the soldiers), it looks like the soldiers are moving,” he said.
Another impressive part of the trip included a visit to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., where more than 14,000 of the country’s veterans have been given a final resting place.
On the way back from Washington, Harres was surprised with a stack of mail from school children with messages such as “You’re my hero” and “Thank you for your service.” He and the rest of the honor flight veterans also received a warm welcome from hundreds of people when they got off the plane in Springfield.
“We had some (veterans) who broke down because it was unexpected, which I wasn’t expecting it either,” he said.
In 1953, Harres enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Germany, where he served as a water treatment specialist. He served for two years during the Korean War.
In that time, one of his most memorable stories included his tent catching on fire in the middle of the night. He recalled waking up and immediately spraying the fire extinguisher on the flames, only to see the fire engulf the tent in seconds.
“I’ve never seen a fire go around a tent so quickly,” he said.
At that point, he and the rest of his tentmates decided to cut their losses and head to safety.
“Everyone started rushing out of the tent, and I followed them out there,” he said. “My friend was in one of those mummy bags, and the zipper got stuck. He said, ‘Fred, I’m stuck. I can’t get out.’ So I ran back in to get him.’”
Without hesitating, Harres rushed in and pulled his friend Alex out of the burning wreckage, which collapsed moments later. Harres still hears from Alex around Christmas time.
“He calls and says, ‘Thank you for saving my life,’” Harres said. “I wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for you.”
He and the rest of the guys didn’t receive a medal that night, but would later be awarded by the military for their service in pumping out quality water. Recognition didn’t come as easily at home since the Korean War was counted then as a “police action.”
Harry Truman, the president at the time, did not seek a formal declaration of war from Congress.
However, going on the honor flight and being welcomed home gave him the feeling that people did appreciate his sacrifice so many years later.
“I couldn’t believe we’re finally being recognized for giving up two to three years for serving our country,” he said. “It was a great trip. I hope other people do it.”