Dale Johnson of Eau Claire stepped onto a plane in La Crosse at 6 a.m. Saturday, followed by his three younger brothers, about to fulfill a three-year dream.
Johnson, 81, and his brothers were chosen this year for Saturday’s Freedom Honor Flight, a daylong trip for veterans to visit military memorials and national monuments in Washington, D.C.
The brothers — Dale Johnson; Sam Johnson, 80, of Crandon; Harry Johnson, 77, of Greenwood; and Ray Johnson, 75, of Tomah — grew up in Greenwood. All four served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War era.
Ray Johnson began the application process in 2016, Dale Johnson said.
La Crosse-based Freedom Honor Flight has offered flights twice per year since 2008 for veterans from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa to visit veterans’ memorials in Washington during a day trip.
“I think it took close to three years before we got selected,” said Harry Johnson, who served two years of active duty in Korea in the mid-1960s.
But from the start, one thing was certain: The Honor Flight would be a family trip, Dale Johnson said Monday: “We decided when this came up that we’d like to all go together as brothers.”
“Not only do they have a strong bond, but they’re very good friends,” said Ginny Johnson, Dale Johnson’s wife.
Another longtime family friend, Air Force veteran Danny Rossow of Greenwood, also accompanied the brothers.
The five veterans were bumped back in line several times, since World War II and terminally ill veterans are given first priority, Dale Johnson said.
Each veteran flies with a guardian. Dale Johnson brought his daughter, Ann Mewhorter, and his three brothers brought their sons, Dale said.
About 95 veterans left La Crosse Saturday morning, and just an hour and 45 minutes later, they landed at the Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va.
When the veterans stepped off the plane, an orchestra, cheerleaders and passengers from other flights greeted them.
“There must have been 200 people waiting for us there,” Dale recalled.
“There were passengers from Washington lined up with suitcases behind them, shaking (their) hands,’” Mewhorter said. “It was really quite amazing.”
For Sam, who served three years of active duty and a stint overseas, tourists greeting the veterans at the World War II Memorial was a touching moment.
“They put their hand out and said, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Sam said. “When I think about that, I get emotional.”
Police escorted the veterans in buses to the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the national World War II Memorial, the Korean and Vietnam Veterans memorials and Arlington National Cemetery, Dale said.
“Now I know how the queen of England felt,” Dale joked.
The flight also brought back somber memories. While visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Dale found the name of a high school classmate, Gary H. Brux of Greenwood.
Brux died in Vietnam in October 1966, according to the U.S. National Archives.
Dale and Brux graduated in the same class and played basketball together, Dale said: “The wall was probably the hardest part for me.”
After the veterans watched the sunset from the Pentagon, a band and a fireworks display welcomed them back to La Crosse Saturday night.
Dale’s wife, Ginny Johnson, his sister and several family members celebrated the brothers’ service after their return.
“That’s quite a feeling to walk off the plane when you have hundreds of people there,” Dale said.
“Everybody cried when we got off the planes,” Mewhorter added.
For Sam, the camaraderie with his brothers and son — and the efficiency of the trip — made the flight stand out.
“I think one of the greatest things was the (work) that was put into getting this Freedom Honor Flight going and prepared and financed,” Sam said. “It’s just unreal. The staff ... did a precision job.”
Freedom Honor Flight is run by volunteers, and flights are funded by donations. On Saturday’s flight were 76 veterans from the Vietnam War era, 18 from the Korean War era and one World War II veteran, according to Freedom Honor Flight’s website.
While the Johnson brothers waited to make the trip, the most important goal was to stay healthy, Dale said.
“We’re pretty lucky because we could all walk really well,” Dale Johnson said.
The flight gave Sam Johnson fresh eyes for veterans’ service, he said.
“People ahead of us have preserved our freedom, and our freedom needs to be continually preserved,” Sam said.
To apply for an Honor Flight, visit Freedom Honor Flight’s website at freedomhonorflight.org.