Westsider/WW2 vet Tom Hendrix has seat on next Honor Flight to D.C.
A catch-phrase of the Honor Flights for World War II veterans is that the all-paid trips to Washington, D.C., “give them the welcome home they never got.”
For long-time Westsider Tom Hendrix, the phrase is actually literal. When he returned from Japan in early 1946, there really was no one to greet him. His older sister Elizabeth, with whom he'd been living when the military drafted him out of high school, had gotten married and moved to Indiana, and his other sister Margaret was there too, helping her with her pregnancy.
“I came home to an empty house,” recalled Hendrix, now 88.
He will have a different experience Sept. 13-15. Honor Flight of Southern Colorado, an all-volunteer organization, will fly him and 22 other World War II veterans to D.C. to visit major national monuments and to be officially thanked by government officials. Accompanying them will be 17 Honor Flight “guardians,” who will keep track of the schedule and make sure the traveling veterans are well taken care of.
“It's the trip of a lifetime for them,” said Terri Ingraldi, whose husband Sal, a retired Air Force master sergeant, is the Southern Colorado president. The group organizes such trips every fall and spring. “It's our way of paying it back to them, showing our respect for what they did for us,” she said.
As it turns out, however, because of an odd coincidence, Hendrix has mixed feelings about going on the trip. He and his wife Doris have been married since 1963, with their 50th anniversary falling on Sept. 14 - right in the middle of the Honor Flight. Until just recently, he'd been told that he was on a waiting list - his son had signed him up two years ago - and that his name probably would not be chosen until next spring.
After learning about his selection for Sept. 13-15, Hendrix said he told Doris, “I shouldn't be doing it,” but relented after she insisted, “ 'You go.' ”
After all, he agreed, the couple had been able to visit with Doris' relatives in the Pacific Northwest in August, during which their marriage accomplishment was roundly recognized.
As for the local Honor Flight group, “it's nice they're doing it,” Hendrix said. “I appreciate it, and it's a good thing to be remembered.”
But he still doesn't buy into the “Greatest Generation” slogan that certain historians have applied to the men who fought in World War II - even if during that time he and fellow soldiers lived in miserable conditions under constant threat of violent death. “That just sold books,” he said, dismissively.
His own war experience started at age 18, right after finishing 12th grade at Colorado Springs High School. Because of a broken family, he was living at that time with his sister Elizabeth at 2925 W. Colorado (about where the Mason Jar is now) “I didn't even have time to volunteer,” he said. “I graduated June 6, 1943, and before June was out, I was in Fort Logan [Denver].”
After going through training, Hendrix was assigned to the 622nd Ordnance Ammunition Company. He arrived in the Pacific Ocean in time for the fighting around the large island of New Guinea. “There were mud, snakes, mosquitos and dive bombers,” Hendrix remembered of the area where they set up the ammunitions depot. “We were bombed quite often - they came close, but never got a direct hit.”
As the months went by, his company continually relocated to stay up with the fighting as the Allied effort steadily moved the Japanese out of their Pacific strongholds. In January 1945, his company supplied ammo for the major invasion of Luzon in the Phillipines. One recollection of that time is “setting up our tents and the Japanese planes flying so close that the breeze from them would blow our tents over,” Hendrix said.
His service continued past Japan's surrender in August 1945 - an event he only learned about on a “scratchy, old-time radio… we had no idea what the atom bomb was.” His company was assigned for a time to harbors outside Japan itself.
Finally, he was shipped back Stateside in December 1945. After being discharged in Denver, he arrived in Colorado Springs in early February 1946. With his sister Elizabeth having moved away, Hendrix's only family left in town was his sister Margaret, residing with her husband Ed at 110 N. 28th St. But Ed was in the war too and still in Japan. Also (as noted above), Margaret was helping Elizabeth in Indiana. As a result, nobody was home. “It was mighty cold,” Hendrix remembers of the weather that day.
But like so many from his generation, the young veteran shrugged off any letdown and got going with his civilian life. He eventually wound up with the Timken company, which decided to put a rock drill-bit manufacturing firm in Colorado Springs after the war.
“I was the seventh person hired at Timken,” Hendrix said. Projects using the company's bits included the construction of NORAD, he noted proudly. He became a supervisor and worked there 35 years in all.
In retirement, Hendrix has been a volunteer for about 15 years with the Old Colorado City Historical Society (OCCHS), helping particularly in archiving the many donated photographs.
He stayed in touch with several men from his unit, typically with Christmas cards, but “most are dead now,” Hendrix said.
Formed in 2011, the Honor Flight of Southern Colorado is one of several around the country (and three in Colorado).
Nationally, the first flight came about as the result of the World War II memorial in D.C. not being built until 2004. By then most of those veterans were in their 70s and 80s, and as a result many of them “were unable to go to a memorial erected in their honor,” Terri Ingraldi said. So a man in Ohio started flying veterans to D.C. and paying for the trips out of his own pocket. This inspired Honor Flight groups to start forming around the country.
Honor Flight of Southern Colorado has coordinated four previous flights. They try to stay accountable. The cost works out to about $1,000 per veteran, and the trip guardians pay their own way (third time now for Terri). But to cover the veterans' trip costs, Honor Flight depends on donations. Those interested in finding out more can go to their website at honorflightsoco.org.
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