Becker recounts trip to Normandy during fund-raiser
Sitting on Omaha Beach at Normandy, France, on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, former Jackson Heights superintendent Paul Becker said he found himself alone and contemplating what might be on the minds of the young men who landed on the beach that morning in 1944.
“I wondered, could I have done what they did?” Becker said. “And I didn’t like the answer that I came up with, quite frankly.”
But the courage those young men showed — and continue to show today — is “amazing,” said Becker, who returned to Jackson County on Saturday to talk about his trip to Normandy and to help raise funds for the Honor Flight program, which he helped start at Jackson Heights High School in 2008. A fund-raising soup supper at Circleville Christian Church that day drew a crowd of more than 40 and donations of more than $1,700, it was reported.
The day’s donations puts Jackson Heights “in great shape to take a flight,” said Adrianne Walsh, who succeeded Becker as superintendent in the fall of 2011. The district’s program, funded entirely by donations, has so far conducted five trips for World War II and Korean War veterans to Washington, D.C.
“Usually, a flight takes around $12,000, depending on how many vets and student guardians we take,” Walsh said. “I feel pretty confident that we’ll be able to get one scheduled.”
More fund-raising for the Honor Flight program will likely happen this summer, as Gary Bell noted. A benefit concert and dinner has been tentatively scheduled for Saturday, July 25, Bell said.
Becker reminded those present that the Jackson Heights program got started after local veterans Claude Rieschick and the late Francis Turley were involved in an Honor Flight through the Lyndon school district in 2008. The two came back to the Jackson Heights school board and urged Becker and board members to start a program locally.
“The school board was all ready for it,” Becker said.
Raising the funds for the first Honor Flight, however, posed more of a challenge than Becker thought it would. After taking his proposal for the program to the district’s communities and promoting the program to others in the area, he said that in February of 2009, the program had only raised about $3,000 for the first flight — about one-fifth of the cost of a trip at the time — and he decided to put it in greater hands.
“I just said, ‘Lord, it’s all yours. I’m not going to think about it anymore. If you want us to take three or four vets, we’ll take three or four vets. If you want us to take 33 vets, we’ll take 33 vets,’” he said. “I never asked, and the money came pouring in over the next 30 days like you wouldn’t believe. We had just the right amount to take 33 vets on our first Honor Flight.”
On Wednesday, April 29, 2009, those 33 veterans, along with 14 JHHS students acting as “guardians” to the veterans, medical support personnel and other Heights staffers, flew to the nation’s capital. They visited the national World War II Memorial and other historic sites in Washington, participating in a 21-hour round trip that was tiring but memorable.
One of those students acting as a “guardian” on that first flight was Kasey Strube, then a junior at JHHS, whom Becker — now Strube’s father-in-law — said had to look after two of the most “high-maintenance” veterans on the trip. Strube, Becker added, did an admirable job of taking care of his veteran charges.
The experience of the trip has also resonated with Strube, who talked about his experience with those present on Saturday.
“It was something that’s had a lasting impact on me,” Strube said. “I got a lot more out of it than I would ever be able to know.”
For the veterans, Becker said the experience they had with the JHHS students only came second to the reception they received upon landing in Washington. Each time, USO volunteers from the Washington area greeted the veterans and other Honor Flight participants, thanking the veterans for their service, while others waiting at the airport gate waved flags, applauded and cheered.
“This was definitely the highlight,” Becker said of the veterans’ arrival and greeting in Washington, playing a video of the first Honor Flight’s arrival at Dulles International Airport as proof.
More promotion and fund-raising guaranteed that another four Honor Flights would happen, said Becker, who oversaw three more trips after that first one. Becker left the district in 2011 to take a similar position in Hesston, but he reminded those present that Jackson Heights continues to occupy “a special place in the Becker family’s heart.”
The other order of the day, Becker reminded the audience, was the memories of his trip last year to Normandy on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landing. He and his younger brother were part of a group of five who visited historic sites in England and France on that trip, stopping at such places as Omaha Beach, Pegasus Bridge and the Suffolk House in Portsmouth, England.
The latter place, Becker said, was where Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower stayed in the run-up to the D-Day invasion. He noted that Eisenhower had a difficult decision to make about the invasion because of a storm that was coming that way on that day, but the next window of opportunity for an invasion wouldn’t come for another couple of weeks. Despite the weather, Becker said. Eisenhower made the decision to go ahead with the landing.
Becker took along one of his Honor Flight T-shirts and, upon encountering WWII veterans who were in Normandy for the 70th anniversary celebration, asked them to autograph the shirt. The first such veteran to sign the shirt was Warren Wilt, a paratrooper from Abbyville — only about 40 miles away from Hesston — whom Becker said was “quite the gentleman.”
Another one he met was Jack Schlegel, a paratrooper whom Becker said was one of several in a unit who had streets in a French village named after them after the unit liberated the village from German soldiers. Becker said the encounter with Schlegel was fun, but also bittersweet, as Schlegel would die only a few days later.
Becker also visited the American cemetery near Omaha Beach, noting how well its graves of Allied soldiers who died in the D-Day invasion are maintained in contrast with graves at a nearby cemetery of German soldiers who died in the same invasion. He said there is a “waiting list” of people who want to help in the American cemetery’s upkeep, while the other cemetery does not and is rather humble in comparison.
The citizens of Normandy also continue to celebrate the Allied liberation of their city, even to this day, Becker said. But what’s most important, he added, is the spirit and the strength of the young men who fought and died to liberate France in the turning-point battle of World War II.
“Being involved with Honor Flight, I’ve really come to appreciate the courage of the World War II veteran. It was a necessary war,” Becker said. “Honor Flight is just our way of saying to these men, thank you for your service.”
For more information on the Honor Flight program at Jackson Heights, or to make a donation, contact the district office at 364-2194.