By Jim Wolff
Because of an organization called Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, a World War II veteran from Dalton, Wisconsin was able to make a once-in-a-lifetime visit to the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.
Sitting at the kitchen table in the Dalton home where he was born over 84 years ago and still lives with his wife of 63 years, Shirley, Carl Utke described the trip that enables WWII veterans and terminally ill vets of other wars to visit their national memorials. “It was a very emotional experience,” he said, “and brought back some memories that I would have never experienced without the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight organization.”
With over 900 World War II heroes dying every day, the mission is to allow those veterans to see the memorial with the assistance of guardians assigned to the veterans. Since he can no longer walk long distances, Utke was pushed in his wheelchair by his guardian to and from the plane and around the huge memorial which is situated in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.
The Utkes’ daughter, Deb Weeden, had seen an article about the flights in a Beaver Dam paper and sent in an application for her dad. He filled it out, sent it back last September and then didn’t hear from them. When he finally received a fundraiser letter from the organization, he inquired about his status and was told he would be going either in June or September of this year and would be called five weeks prior. After filling out papers for liability purposes, he was ready to go in June.
Utke’s was one of three Wisconsin flights being made this year and his flew out of Milwaukee. His daughter, Rita March, had asked if she could be his guardian (they pay $500 out of their pockets for the one-day trip), but was told that guardians had already been assigned. Some are college age, some are older. Utke’s guardian, who stayed with him during the entire trip, had a wheelchair ready at General Mitchell International Airport and took him through security prior to the flight. There were 74 veterans and 45 guardians on the 717 jetliner that day, along with two photographers. Some of the veterans were women and one of the veterans was 94 years old, Utke said.
When he arrived in Milwaukee at 6 a.m. on June 27, the veterans were given red, white or blue wrist bands indicating which bus they would take upon arriving in Washington. It was Utke’s first plane ride since 1946. After the two-hour flight and landing at Dulles International Airport, they were amazed to see a color guard on the tarmac and a huge arch of water greeting them. They had to walk through a large group of people who warmly greeted them. Utke didn’t know who they were or where they came from.
Buses then took them to the WWII Memorial where one wall is covered with 4,048 stars, each one representing 100 soldiers killed during the war. Fifty-six granite pillars celebrate the unprecedented unity of the nation during WWII. The pillars are connected by a bronze sculpted rope that symbolizes the bonding of the nation. Each state and territory from that period and the District of Columbia is represented by a pillar adorned with oak and wheat bronze wreaths and inscribed with its name. The pillars are arranged in the order of entry into the Union, alternating south to north across the plaza beginning adjacent to the Field of Gold Stars. The 17-foot pillars are open in the center for greater transparency, and ample space between each allows viewing into and across the memorial.
Former Senators Bob Dole and Elizabeth Dole greeted each veteran, as they do for all flights, and a memorial service was held outside the memorial. “I thought of my buddy Joe from Philadelphia who was with me most of my time overseas,” Utke said. “I thought of the things we did and didn’t do together.”
Around noon each veteran was given a box lunch after which they toured the Arlington National Cemetery and viewed the changing of the guard. They also visited the Marine Corps War Memorial which features the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising statue. The group was in D.C. about six hours before boarding the plane where they each received another box lunch. The veterans were not allowed to spend one cent nor are they allowed to donate toward the organization, the mindset being that “they have given enough.”
Once on the plane, a “mail call” was announced and each veteran was given a packet of letters from family members and school kids. “It got very quiet on the plane after that,” Utke said. “It was very emotional.” Utke’s packet contained “thank yous” from school kids and poignant letters from his family, none of which he cared to share. One of the letters was from a student who had been raised in Kosovo and experienced some of the same war trauma that American military men had experienced during the war.
More surprises awaited the group upon their arrival back in Milwaukee. Fire trucks were at the airport forming a huge arc of water, a band was playing and family members were waving flags and displaying signs. There were even cheerleaders! None of the veterans expected any of it.
Looking back, Utke’s family thinks Carl was selected because of his medical history. He has been operated on twice for colon cancer, has just finished treatments for bladder cancer, has had a knee replaced, two hips replaced, gall bladder surgery, shoulder rotator cuff repaired, and other procedures he has long forgotten.
Carl Utke was born in their house on Dalton’s Main Street on Nov. 23, 1924, attended grade school there and high school in Portage. He was drafted on April 23, 1943, passed his physical in Milwaukee and was told to stand in the “Navy” line, thus becoming a sailor in the United States Navy. “That’s one of the better things that happened to me,” he said.
He took boot camp at Great Lakes, then attended electrician’s school at Moorehead, KY. Prior to graduation, he and nine others were told they weren’t graduating, but were leaving for New York that night where they found themselves in an Army camp at Ft. Monmouth, NJ. It turned out that those ten sailors were the top in their class and specially selected for the tasks of learning to repair teletypes. They didn’t know, until they arrived in Brooklyn, NY, that five of them (Utke included) would be trained to repair code machines. All their work was classified and they learned later that their hometown backgrounds had been checked by the FBI.
After that, Carl was sent to San Francisco on shore patrol, then to New Guinea on April 8, 1944, arriving on May 9. His next deployment was to the Philippines where a bomb had exploded near their ship. Utke’s job was to travel to various ships to repair the code machines, then back to shore. At the ages of 19 and 20, he literally “ran the shop” in Manila, supervising the repair shop for teletype/code machines.
His mother died exactly one year from the date he entered the Navy (April 23, 1944), but due to mail delays, he didn’t get the letter from his dad until May 18, 1944. He received the telegram from the Navy notifying him of her death sometime in August of 1944.
Utke was discharged April 26, 1946, having earned five ribbons—American Area Ribbon, Victory Ribbon, Asiatic Pacific Ribbon, Philippine Liberation Ribbon, and Good Conduct Ribbon. He reached the rank of 1st Class Electrician’s Mate.
During a furlough that January, he attended a dance in Fox Lake where he met Shirley Hein. They were married Oct. 20, 1946 and that union produced three children—a son, Dale; a daughter, Rita March and another daughter, Deb Weeden. The Utkes have one grandchild and two great grandchildren.
Utke had worked with his dad’s concrete business and then went into partnership with him when they began building concrete silos for the next 13 years. The firm did concrete work for both residential and industrial, including Badger Mining, Speed Queen, Del Monte, Friday Canning Co., among others.
Carl retired in 1995 and has since done some part time supervisory work for Glover Metal Builders in Kingston.
The trip he took to the memorial cost $42,000, all paid for by individual and corporate donations. Jeff Suppan, Milwaukee Brewers pitcher, contributed $10,000 and Panera Bread gave $85,000 to the project. Other state contributors include American Legion posts, Brewers charities, Dodge County, Flag Day Foundation, Forsythe, IBM, Lakeshore Middle School, Metavante, Ozaukee County, Port-Saukville School District, Rail Road Station, Rob and Dawn Brooks, Rotary International, Sheboygan Falls School District, St. Peter’s Men’s Club, University School, VFWs and We Energies.
Information about the project and photos of the veterans’ visits may be found on the website “starsandstripeshonorflight.
“It was a very emotional experience, and brought back some memories that I would have never experienced without the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight organization.”