Tri-City veterans take Honor Flight to nation’s capital

Geoff Folsom, Herald staff writerNovember 10, 2013 

Tri-City World War II veterans are carrying memories of recent trips to the nation’s capital with them this Veterans Day.

The September Inland Northwest Honor Flight took John “Des” Howarth, Edward Ruimerman, Wesley Door and Duane Sobotka on a two-day trip to Washington, D.C. Fred Shoemaker took a similar trip in late October.

They visited the National World War II Memorial, among other sites. The oval monument honors veterans from each state in the union at the time of the war, plus several territories. Many veterans had their picture taken in front of the pillar representing their home state.

“It was something, it was wonderful. It was the largest of all the memorials,” Howarth said of the monument. “It was kind of outstanding.”

Howarth, 89, a Michigan native, moved to Richland from the Oregon coast in April, shortly after his wife of 67 years died.

He was rejected by the U.S. Army when he tried to enlist, but since he was born in Canada, he went across the border and joined in 1943. He was able to transfer to the U.S. Army Air Forces 36th Bomb Squadron once he got to England.

He was aboard the B-24 Beast of Bourbon when it crashed on takeoff in February 1945.

“We were taking off on one of those foggy days, and we didn’t get off the ground,” he said.

Howarth’s memories of what happened after the crash are not clear, but he recalls exiting through an opening on the top of the plane. Three of his fellow crew members didn’t make it.

Howarth attended the University of Michigan before and after the war. He served as a play-by-play broadcaster for the Wolverines football team and developed a friendship with Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon.

Ruimerman, 85, a native of Connecticut who moved to Kennewick about a year ago, said his favorite part of the visit to the nation’s capital was seeing a changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

“They were so sharp and so exact,” he said.

Ruimerman served in the South Pacific aboard a fleet oil tanker, including during the Battle of Okinawa. He recalls one close call when a Japanese submarine destroyed a ship that had moved into his ship’s mooring place by mistake.

“The destroyers started moving around dropping depth charges like crazy,” he said.

Ruimerman left the Navy after the war, only to rejoin and serve on a destroyer during the Korean War. He later served for decades in the Army reserves.

Door, 88, a lifelong Kennewick resident, served as a guard in the Navy for a Merchant Marine ship in the South Pacific.

He responded “all of the above” when asked about his favorite monument during the visit.

“It’s just good memories,” Door said. “I didn’t realize how few people are veterans from World War II.”

Shoemaker, 89, served as a B-25 mechanic in the Army Air Forces during the war.

He worked on planes that escorted Japanese “Betty” bombers, painted white with green crosses under orders from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, that carried the Japanese delegation to surrender talks in the Philippines, he said.

Shoemaker and his fellow veterans got a special greeting at the airport during his October trip to Washington, he said.

“Before we got to the gate, they had fire engines with fire hoses (spraying water), and we taxied through an arch,” he said.

Sobotka, 89, could not be reached for this story. But Howarth said he served under Patton at the Battle of the Bulge and fought to stop the German army from taking Antwerp.

Ruimerman beams when he tells of the reception the Honor Flight group received on its return to Spokane. People lined the airport concourse to greet them.

“It took a half hour to get out of there,” he said. “They were thanking us for our service in World War II.”

One of the more touching moments for Howarth came when he watched a video of the trip when he got back to Richland.

“I almost got tears in my eyes seeing all these old guys and all these battles they had been through,” he said.

The veterans take different approaches to celebrating their service now. Ruimerman is a life member of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Door, who joined the Navy after graduating from Kennewick High School to avoid being drafted into the Army, regularly participates in veterans events, going to Spokane this week for a veterans tribute.

Howarth returned in 2011 to Long Marston, near where he was stationed at Cheddington airfield in England, for a tribute to those who served there. He was the featured guest as the only survivor of the crash to attend. He flew over the crash site in a small plane and returned to the remains of the barracks in which he once slept.

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” he said.

Howarth has been in a number of parades, but usually as a member of the Shriners. He’s never taken part in Veterans Day parades, even though he lived close to Albany, Ore., which boasts the “largest Veterans Day parade west of the Mississippi,” he said.

But he has a Veterans Day message.

“I want you to think of all the wonderful guys, not only the veterans, but the American public that was 125 percent behind the guys,” he said. “The feeling of the public was different back then in terms of loyalty, patriotism and those things.”

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