NORTH CANTON, Ohio — When the veterans of the Vietnam and Korean wars came home, they often did so with little recognition — and more than 40 years later, many Americans have forgotten those wars.
But on Oct. 24, during a special welcome home ceremony at MAPS Air Museum, in Green, near Canton, Ohio, nearly 400 of those veterans and their families were remembered — boldly, loudly and visually.
A parade of tour buses, led by the Rolling Thunder motorcyclists, led the veterans down a half-mile stretch of roadway, decorated with U.S. flags that led to a large airplane hangar, known as MAPS Air Museum, where families and friends awaited.
As they walked off the bus, some being lowered down in wheelchairs, they were accompanied by a medley of The Marine Hymns, played by the Red Hackle Pipes and Drums band of Cleveland, as each veteran walked to the front of the hangar and found his seat.
“Every day that you wake up free, it’s going to be a good day. And where does that freedom come from? Well, the answer is sitting right out here in front of me,” said Col. Dave Taylor, keynote speaker and a twice-wounded Vietnam veteran.
Taylor, of Medina, said veterans of the past fought to preserve freedom, and are fighting today, as they fight to defend freedom against terror.
“Our freedom to fail, our freedom to succeed and our freedom to try came from millions of ordinary citizens who saw it as their duty to serve and not to be served,” he said.
He recounted his own wartime experience, which included being shot at during a helicopter descent, and later taking a bullet to his left side, and a separate bullet to his right leg. He said another soldier tended to his shattered leg, only to be fatally shot himself, dying at Taylor’s feet.
Heroes who serve
Taylor said society makes heroes out of celebrities and famous people, but true heroes to him are those who serve their country.
“Most of my heroes are on the Vietnam Wall in Washington D.C.,” he said.
The event gave a somber reminder of the losses in the Vietnam and Korean wars — and in all wars — including the 83,000 Americans who are still missing.
Members of the Rolling Thunder Ohio Chapter 5, a group dedicated to those missing in action, led a visual demonstration of what it’s like for a family to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and find their loved one’s name.
A mobile version of the wall was erected inside the museum, and actors portraying families and soldiers walked up to the wall together, with background music that matched the experience.
Bringing back memories
Some of the veterans wiped away tears during the demonstration, as they watched the actors embrace each other at the wall — saying goodbye to the lost.
Another demonstration featured a dog tag tree, with the names of fallen Vietnam veterans from Ohio.
“We have not forgotten, nor will we forget them in the future,” said Ted “Doc” Mathies, a Vietnam veteran who served as a medic.
Missing in action
A separate, “Missing Man Table” ceremony was held to remember the veterans who are missing in action, or were taken as prisoners of war.
The small, empty table was set for four people, with a white table cloth that symbolized the pure intentions of the missing; a rose that stood for the loved ones who wait for their
return; a lemon slice that stood as a reminder of their bitter fate; grains of salt that symbolized the tears shed by their families; an inverted glass that served as a reminder of their inability to drink and share with the free; and empty chairs that showed the missing are not here.
A member of the Rolling Thunder led a roll call of all MIA veterans sine World War I, reporting that more than 1,600 Vietnam veterans, and nearly 8,000 Korean War veterans are still missing.
The ceremony concluded with patriotic songs and the playing of military taps.
Scott Humbert, of North Canton, came with seven other members of his family to welcome home his father, Leo, who served in the Korean War.
“It’s just a great honor to be here and have the Korean veterans and the Vietnam veterans recognized, (from) a time when they didn’t recognize the veterans,” Scott Humbert said. “It’s some good closure for them.”
Asked what the ceremony meant to him, Leo was speechless.
“I just think of all the guys who didn’t come back,” he said, wiping back tears.
Some of his grandchildren came, as well, including granddaughter Courtney Humbert.
“We know how much it means to him, so it means a lot to us, too,” she said. “We wouldn’t miss it for the world to support him.”
Gloria Wellendorf, of Canton, came with eight family members, including a son and daughter-in-law who came up from Florida, to support Gloria’s husband, Ralph, who served from 1963-1967.
“We’re proud of him,” she said, adding she was “very grateful” that the celebration was held.
Many of the veterans did not know what to expect, and several had never been to MAPS Air Museum — which is a military museum dedicated to the preservation of military aircraft.
Ken Roush, a forward air controller in the Vietnam War, wrote a letter to the museum following the event, thanking the volunteers for welcoming him home.
“Little did I know that this was going to be a very special day in my life,” he wrote. “This was going to be closure for a war I fought many years ago. I didn’t know that until it happened.
“I finally now know what it was like to ‘come home’ to a welcoming America of friends and family.”
Roush said that when he came home the first time, in 1970, he felt “alone,” and that he has felt alone for 45 years, until the ceremony held Oct. 24, at the museum.
“There were lumps in our throats and tears in our eyes when we saw the firefighters honoring our arrival ‘Home,’” he continued. “The hundreds of flags lining the road even brought more tears and unbelievable emotions.
“I tried not to let the other veterans see me cry, but as it turned out, they were all doing the very same thing. … I hope the other vets got a little closure as I did. The aloneness is finally gone because of all the efforts that were made in ‘welcoming us home.’”