WWII and Korean War veteran sees national memorials for the first time
At the age of 91, Elvin “Speed” Homan took the trip of a lifetime. Speed, who lives at Harmony River Living Center in Hutchinson, Minnesota, joined 24 fellow World War II and Korean War veterans on April 21, 2015 for the St. Cloud Honor Flight.
The trip was hosted by VFW Post 428 in St. Cloud, Minnesota, which is a member of the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit organization that provides all-expense-paid trips for veterans to Washington, D.C. Since the nationwide program began in 2005, hundreds of flights have ferried thousands of veterans to see the war memorials in the nation’s capital.
Each veteran is accompanied by a family member or friend to serve as a guardian. Speed invited his son-in-law, Hart Rosebrock, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, to accompany him. Rising at 2 a.m., Speed and Hart headed to the St. Cloud VFW to catch a charter bus to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. During the bus ride, war veterans were alerted to a “mail call” in which each honoree was presented with an envelope filled with letters from friends and family thanking them for their valor and service to their country. Speed was overwhelmed with emotion as he opened and read over 60 letters.
Among the messages were these tributes:
“We are a grateful nation because of men [and women] such as yourself who answered the call to defend liberty and justice for those oppressed around the world.”
“I love to tell everyone about our family legacy and about my hero, YOU. I love you so much and thank you for your service and sacrifice.”
“Thank you for the sacrifices that you and your family have made so that our families may live in freedom. God Bless You!”
A Hero's Welcome
The group took off from the Twin Cities to arrive at Reagan International Airport in Washington D.C. by mid-morning. They were met by an applauding crowd and presented a full itinerary. The honorees spent their first afternoon exploring the monuments and memorials in the capital, including Arlington National Cemetery, the World War II Memorial, the Korean Conflict Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial and more.
“It was awesome, just beautiful,” Speed described the WWII memorial with its 50 pillars, one for each state. “I walked all the way around it. I was tired, but it was worth it,” he said. Speed described the Korean War Memorial where life-size bronze statues of solders are positioned as if marching through a grassy field, “It was so lifelike, you could have reached out and shook their hands,” he marveled.
Speed’s favorite stop on the trip was the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington Cemetery where he witnessed the Changing of the Guard. “The discipline and precision the guards demonstrated really showed their dedication,” he said with admiration for his fellow soldiers, more than 7 decades younger.
Even more powerful than the aesthetics of the monuments were the memories they evoked. “I kept watching Speed’s face and could see tears in his eyes as he took it all in,” said Hart.
Jumping Into Trouble
Speed enlisted in the Army in 1943, signing up to be a paratrooper because, he confessed, “It paid $50 more a month than infantry, which was big money back then.” Speed shipped to the European theater to join Company C-506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. His regiment was dropped on D-Day behind enemy lines beyond Normandy Beach and miles from the targeted drop zone. It took Speed four days on the ground to rejoin his unit.
On his next mission, dubbed “Operation Market Garden,” his C-47 troop-carrier aircraft was hit by enemy fire and headed for a crash landing. Speed and his regiment were ordered to jump. He was one of seven paratroopers who survived among the 17 in his unit. Captured by the German army, Speed spent 5 months in a succession of German POW camps. Although grateful not to have suffered the atrocities often described by other POWs, Speed endured harsh conditions. “When I hit the ground I weighed about 140 pounds. In the 5 months of captivity, I dropped to about 90 pounds,” he recalled. He thought his ordeal was over when the camp was liberated by the Russian Army on March 31, 1945, but rejoining his unit required a harrowing journey through Poland, Russia, Egypt and Italy.
Speed returned to Minnesota, met and married his wife, Rosa, and settled in to civilian life. Five years later, married with two children and another on the way, he was called up through the Army Reserves and returned to active duty in Korea. Rosa took up her own battle to secure his release and, in May 1951, Speed received a hardship discharge. He worked for over 19 years at Glencoe Mills then briefly for a local plumbing company. He retired in 1986 after serving over 22 years as a custodian with the Glencoe School District.
Speed recognizes how his military experience shaped his character. “It ‘growed me up,’ and made me realize that there are more important things in the world than just having fun,” he maintained.
A Family Legacy of Service
Although not a “career soldier” himself, Speed is proud to count four sons and his son-in law, two granddaughters and one grandson who have served or are serving in the military. “Dad’s life and story have made an impact on all his children and grandchildren,” said his daughter, Barb Rosebrock. “He is the person we look up to and the bonds are very strong.”
On many occasions, Speed has shared his story with school children and community groups. “It’s not unusual for people to come up to him and thank him for his service,” said Barb. “Each time he gives a speech, I hear something new and different. More than once, the audience, even children, gave him their full attention and a standing ovation,” she beamed.
Speed often dons his favorite POW hat when he’s out and about at Harmony River and he’s always ready to share a story or two. “Speed brings a sense of patriotic pride and service to Harmony River by sharing his experiences freely with residents, staff and everyone he meets,” said Pam Radunz, Household Coordinator at Harmony River. The Honor Flight adds one more chapter to his story. “We’re looking forward to Speed giving a full presentation of his trip sometime this Fall,” said Radunz.
Reveille, Day 2
In true military fashion, the second day of the Honor Flight Capital Tour began at sunrise with stops at the Iwo Jima and Air Force memorials. “Wherever we stopped, people came over to us and thanked us for our service and clapped as we went by,” said Speed. The applause, salutes and hugs showered on these veterans extended an appreciation they may not have received more than 60 years ago. “A mother came up to me and asked if her [teenage] children could give me a hug!” Speed remarked.
After the full and emotional two-day tour, the veterans boarded the return flight to Minnesota but the honors were not yet over. Their bus back to St. Cloud was given an honorable and enthusiastic send off from the airport. Approaching their destination, they were met by a local police car and fire truck that escorted them into town while people lined up along the roadside waving flags. A celebratory meal and closing ceremony at the VFW Post brought the journey and its dignity full circle. Each veteran received a commemorative coin for service in their respective wars and to remember the Honor Flight they shared.
Speed’s esteem grew even deeper when his son-in-law and guardian, Hart, was called up to receive a coin for his service in Vietnam. They both say that the bond they have grew even stronger by sharing this experience together. Weary but with their hearts and minds overflowing, Speed and Hart headed home.