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Honor Flight memories special for World War II Veterans

A gathering of the folks from the Roughrider Honor Flight
A gathering recently to share Roughrider Honor Flight and WWII memories included, from left: Tara Holt, Doug Prchal, Bob Ritterbush and his spouse, Julia, and Stan Sharkey. PHOTO BY NDAREC/NORTH DAKOTA LIVING

In November, the nation pays tribute to veterans of military service. Sadly, shaking the hand of a veteran of World War II gets increasingly difficult with each passing year. These days, most living World War II veterans are 90 years old, or older.

Three World War II veterans from North Dakota remain ready and willing to receive a handshake of gratitude and to share their experiences from those years. In addition, they share the special, well-deserved status as passenger-participants in the Roughrider Honor Flight program.

The Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., effort emerged at the time the national World War II Memorial was opened, in 2004. The idea of taking World War II veterans to see the new memorial was first discussed at a veterans clinic in Ohio. In May 2005, the first Honor Flight, carrying 12 World War II veterans, journeyed from Springfield, Ohio, to Washington, D.C. Soon thereafter, the Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., project expanded to other states all across the country.

Those three World War II veterans from North Dakota making the Honor Flight include: Bob Ritterbush, Stan Sharkey and Clare Misslin.

• Bob Ritterbush entered the U.S. Navy during World War II as a cadet and seaman from Bismarck. He served in West Lafayette, Ind.; the Great Lakes, Ill., Ships Company; and Treasure Island, Calif. He remained in the U.S. Naval Reserves after the war, and was recalled for service as the Korean Conflict unfolded. Ritterbush received a bachelor’s degree from Purdue University (Indiana), and a master’s degree from the University of Michigan, in the areas of engineering and architecture. He practiced engineering and architecture in Bismarck for 50 years.

For Ritterbush, a highlight memory of his May 2009 Honor Flight was visiting Arlington National Cemetery. “That was very impressive,” he says. Ritterbush says his enduring memory of World War II years was national unity. “Everybody cooperated,” he recalls, “and you knew you were doing it for your country.”

• For his World War II service, Stan Sharkey entered the U.S. Army, also from Bismarck, attending basic training near Tyler, Texas. He was part of the 136th Regimental Combat Team, as a rifleman, assigned primarily to intel/recon. He served in New Guinea and the Philippines for 2.5 years. Sharkey would also go on to be stationed in Japan, after the war ended, as part of the occupational force there. He said the Japanese were welcoming and gracious in defeat and he even learned the Japanese language to help facilitate the post-war effort. After the war, Sharkey returned to Bismarck, where he was a businessman and raised a family.

Sharkey’s participation in the May 2009 Honor Flight triggered strong emotions, recalling his World War II service and feeling the reception the World War II veterans received during their visit to Washington, D.C.

“At the Korean Conflict memorial, there was a young girl there who asked about our group,” Sharkey says. “I told her we were World War II veterans, and she asked if she could give me a hug, then she did. I got many hugs, pats on the back and handshakes on that trip.”

• Clare Misslin, originally from Garrison, was a cadet nurse, entering the U.S. Army in 1943. She received training at a hospital in St. Paul, Minn., and would go on to care for wounded soldiers at Shick General Hospital in Clinton, Iowa. Upon her June 1945 discharge, she married a U.S. Navy ensign in Miami, Fla., and they moved to Garrison in 1948, where they raised a family. She now resides in Bismarck. Misslin made the Roughrider Honor Flight’s third trip, in April 2010.

“It was a great trip – we were treated as heroes,” Misslin says. She adds receiving such royal treatment was a bit of a shock, as she never considered her role during the war as extraordinary. “It was an honor to serve. We were all part of the war effort,” she says.

In all, three Honor Flight “hubs” were operated in North Dakota: Northern Valley Honor Flight; WDAY Honor Flight; and Roughrider Honor Flight.

• Northern Valley Honor Flight was based in Grand Forks. This hub completed two flights: April 2009 and October 2009. These two trips transported 200 veterans.

• WDAY Honor Flight is based in Fargo. This hub completed eight flights, from May 2009 through May 2017. These trips transported about 1,000 veterans. This is the sole remaining active Honor Flight in North Dakota; there is a WDAY Honor Flights set to occur this month (Nov. 5-6).

• Roughrider Honor Flight was based in Bismarck. This hub completed five flights, from May 2009 to May 2011. This was a hub formed to serve western North Dakota veterans; about 500 took these trips.

Wife and husband team Tara Holt and Doug Prchal, from Bismarck, played key roles in the Roughrider Honor Flight working group – all volunteers. They recall their hope that a few World War II veterans would respond to the 2008 notice about the initial Roughrider Honor Flight, scheduled for May 2009. The response was overwhelming, leading to five Roughrider Honor Flights in all. They indicated that it was typically sons and daughters of veterans who got their World War II veteran parents to sign up for the flight.

“These veterans had never really been honored when they came home from World II,” Tara Holt says. Holt and Prchal, a veteran himself, have parents and relatives who served in World War II. They felt a deep sense of gratitude was owed to World War II veterans, and with the emergence of the World War II Memorial, felt members of this elderly generation deserved a free trip to visit it, not to mention recognition for their service.

Holt and Prchal say acknowledgement and gratitude needs to been extended to the large number of individuals and businesses who contributed the funds needed to make the trip possible for the veterans. They say U.S. Congressman Kevin Cramer (a Public Service Commissioner when Honor Flights in North Dakota began) provided fundraising assistance.

They commend the hundreds of other volunteers, in North Dakota and Washington, D.C., who were indispensable to the success of the Honor Flights. They indicate also that the local medical community – especially the doctors and nurses of Veterans Administration in Fargo – played a key role in the success of each trip. Each flight group included medical professionals – a necessity because of the advanced ages (81 years and older) of veterans participating.

(Editor's note: Thanks extended to Sarah Mudder, Bismarck, for materials used in this story.)