By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN One day and 100 World War II veterans made for an unforgettable trip for Delano’s Pete Theis last fall.
Non-profit organization Honor Flight Network honored Theis with a visit to Washington, DC’s memorials, which are dedicated to those who have fought to protect America’s freedoms.
“That was my first time in Washington, DC,” said 86-year-old Theis. “I was really happy to be able to get on this trip.”
He heard about the opportunity through a friend, who had participated in an earlier event.
“I thought, ‘why not?’” Theis said, explaining that he wasn’t sure what to expect.
It didn’t take long for Theis to be pleasantly surprised.
First, he received a letter of appreciation from Chris Coborn, CEO of Coborn’s, Inc., the company that helped sponsor the flight.
“The valor and sacrifices of our military can never be remembered nor honored enough,” the letter stated.
A day to remember
When the departure date arrived, Theis met 99 other World War II veterans from Minnesota. One leader (guardian) was assigned to every two veterans.
“We left St. Cloud at 6 a.m.,” Theis said. “Shortly after we got on the flight, they asked us how long it took to get mail when we were in the service. For some, it was two or three weeks; and for others, it was a few days.”
Then, the veterans were told that it was time for mail call on the plane.
“That was a surprise,” Theis said. “Each of the guardians had envelopes for each individual from family, friends, and kids in school.”
Theis received three thick envelopes, with letters from several people, including his daughter, Jeanine Johnson, and second-grade granddaughter, Faith Johnson.
“The most important one is from my wife,” Theis said, adding that he and Pat have been married 62 years.
“The ninth-graders all wrote letters to me, thanking me for my time in the service and wishing me a happy flight which it was,” he added.
At about 9:30 a.m. Eastern time, the plane arrived at Dulles Airport in Washington, DC.
Veterans and their guardians boarded three buses, color-coded with red, white, and blue markings.
“Thirty of us wore red-t-shirts for identification,” Theis said. “One-third wore white t-shirts, and the other group wore blue t-shirts. Everybody wore a red cap.”
After a box lunch on the bus, veterans visited the WWII, Lincoln, Vietnam War, Korean War, Arlington, Iwo Jima, Air Force, and Navy memorials.
“They were all interesting,” Theis said. “It was neat seeing them in person.”
Theis also enjoyed viewing the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“The whole trip was really well organized and well planned,” Theis said. “It was never crowded. We could take our time, and we didn’t have to rush through it.”
By 6:30 p.m., the group was back at Dulles Airport. After dinner, they boarded their flight and returned to the St. Cloud Regional Airport.
It was late by the time Theis got back to Delano that night, but he didn’t mind.
“When I got home, to be honest, I was not exhausted,” he said. “Everything went so nice and smooth. Whoever planned that thing did a wonderful job.”
Proud to serve
Theis is grateful for the opportunity to be a WWII veteran.
“It was an experience I would never give up,” he said. “I was proud to be able to serve. I never regretted a day I went in.”
Theis vividly remembers the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
“I was hunting pheasants, and as I was coming back, I walked up on the road,” Theis said. “A car stopped and the guy inside told me that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. I was 13 or 14 at the time.”
Even though he wasn’t old enough to join the military, Theis already had a strong desire to contribute.
“I was afraid the war wouldn’t last long enough for me to go,” he said.
A few years later, Theis got his opportunity.
“My older brother was serving with PT [patrol torpedo] boats in the Navy,” Theis said. “He said if I wanted to do something exciting, I should join the Navy and be on the PT boats.”
When Theis told the Navy his preference, however, they weren’t able to guarantee a spot.
“I told them I wanted PT, and they said, ‘you and thousands of other guys want PT,’” he recalled.
So, Theis and another brother enlisted in the Air Force instead.
“We arranged it so that we could both leave at the same time,” Theis said. “We wound up going through basic training together.”
They ended up leaving home three days before Christmas.
“That was kind of hard on Mom and Dad,” Theis said, adding that, fortunately, Theis and his two brothers all survived the war.
Theis said his position as a mechanic on Guam was not particularly dangerous.
“We had to be on the alert, though,” he said. “We carried our weapons with us, because you never knew.”
Theis also experienced a fair amount of discomfort, such as seasickness while traveling on a ship for 40 days.
When he returned to Minnesota, Theis utilized his mechanic skills as owner and operator of the Amoco Station in Delano.
About 20 years ago, Theis sold the business to his son, agreeing to help out from time to time.
“Well, part time turned into full time, and I was there 10 more years,” he said.
Theis is now officially retired, which gives him time to enjoy his wife, three children, four grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.