The light rumble of thunder served as background to raucous applause and piercing whistles that rose up from the parking lot of Central Christian Church in South Beloit, Ill., Thursday evening (May 20).
Road-weary veterans, 128 in all, climbed out of nine RVs and three charter buses single file, of course, following their four-day journey to Washington, D.C., to witness the World War II Veterans Memorial.
Their trip was sponsored by Finnegans’ RV Center Inc. in South Beloit.
Red and white lights bounced off their exuberant faces as two fire trucks, with ladders extended, graced the entrance to the lot, an American flag draped between them.
“Welcome home, soldier” was heard as the veterans made their way out of the RVs, with “Mission Accomplished” signs pasted along the sides.
Hundreds of people filled the parking lot of the Beloit church, waiting patiently with their children and animals, some with blankets wrapped around them.
Madeline Slater, 3, and Jenna Schomber, 9, hoisted a sign that read “Welcome Home Nana and Pop.” They whirled around, hair whipping as they ran between their parents’ legs.
“It’s past their bedtime,” Madeline’s mother, Megan Slater, said with a smile.
Zach and Marisa Franks stood patiently as their children, Mandalyn, 6, and Zavier, 8, held signs with their cousins Azaria Martin, 8, and Aniya Martin, 6.
“They’re so excited,” Marisa said.
Even man’s best friend staked out a spot in the celebration. In attendance was Circle of Change, which trains dogs for emotional support for those who have suffered traumatic events. Londyn went on the VetsRoll trip to serve as an emotional support dog, and trainer Pat Muller was there to pick her up.
“Many of those vets suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and one of our volunteers traveled on the trip with Londyn,” Muller said.
As the veterans slowly made their way inside to the Central Christian Church gymnasium, each was handed a vibrant red carnation and a pin that read “VetsRoll: Mission Accomplished.”
“Well, we made it all home in one piece,” Al Kath Jr. said. “Seeing the memorial is something you will never visualize until you actually see it, and its a wonderful memorial for all those people that never came back.”
Kath recalled the 775-mile trip home, where children lined up over some overpasses waving flags and hollering. It was a once in a lifetime deal, he said.
His son, Richard, volunteered to drive one of the RVs, and once his father’s wheelchair was settled he took a step back.
“They held up pretty well,” he said with a smile.
Harison Teague stood in a daze, looking around the gym filled with people. A young woman approached him, asking to take a photo with him. He gladly threw his arm over her shoulder, adjusted his Marines hat and waited for the camera flash.
“When you’re at my age, you get tired easily,” he said as he made his way to his seat. He tipped his hat back and smiled, waiting for the reception to begin.
“Let’s Roll VetsRoll,” was the call that went out Monday morning (May 17) as a caravan of recreational vehicles and motorcoaches left South Beloit, Wis., on its way to Washington, D.C.
Aboard the vehicles were about 128 veterans who are on their way to see the World War II Memorial in the nation’s capital, according to the Beloit Daily News.
Mark Finnegan of Finnegan RV in South Beloit was busy doing last-minute preparations for the trip, making sure all the veterans who signed up had shown up and making sure everyone was assigned to the proper vehicle.
Finnegan, who has been organizing the trip since February, said the trip will be about 2,000 miles when it’s all done.
Friends and family gathered in the parking lot of the Flying J travel center before sunrise Monday to see the traveling troupe off on their journey.
Ellen Kuchta and Grace Konter turned out to wish a good trip to their uncle, Dave Coles, of Beloit. Coles served in the U.S. Navy in World War II and served aboard the USS Hornet aircraft carrier.
The two women stood outside the RV that would carry Coles to Washington with flags in hand, excited about the whole event.
“This is the first time he will see the memorial,” Konter said.
Bill Midgett of Rockford was a medic in the Army during WW II. He also said this will be his first time visiting the WW II Memorial.
“This is the best,” he said. “This is once in a lifetime for most vets,” Midgett said.
Vern Brown, who formerly lived in Beloit, served in the 32nd Infantry Division during WW II. He heard about the VetsRoll trip through his brother-in-law, Jack Willis. As he boarded the RV that would take him to the nation’s capital, he wanted to give the trip a try.
“Sounds good so far. I’ll let you know once I get back,” he said with a laugh.
Leo Craney, who was the driver for the No. 4 RV, said the caravan planned to stop in Somerset, Pa. tonight before pushing on to Frederick, Md. Craney said instead of having nine RVs, three charter buses and a support van cruising around Washington, the group will take a few buses to the memorial and to tour other sites in the area.
The group is expected back in the Stateline Area Thursday night at about 8:45 p.m. for a welcome home event at Central Christian Church on Milwaukee Road in Beloit.
Mark and John Finnegan, owners of Finnegan’s RV Center in South Beloit, Wis., will use eight donated RVs and two charter buses to take 128 World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., all free of charge through a project they call “Vets Roll,” according to WIFR-TV, Rockford, Ill.
The vets will visit the new WWII memorial, something they say their father never had a chance to do. And since they are not just flying the vets out, they will all have a lot of time to share war stories along the way.
“Most of these veterans are in their mid-80s and early-90s, and it’s just , there’s so much rich history that we just won’t be able to get back,” said Mark Finnegan.
One of them, Albert Kath, shared his memories with NBC15, Madison, Wis.
“The Battle of the Bulge started at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning,” recalled Albert Kath. “And all hell broke loose.”
And Kath was in the middle of it. By the end of the day the 20-year-old would be a prisoner of war.
“The next morning we were loaded into box cars,” he remembered. “For six days we didn’t have anything to eat or drink.”
Kath would remain a POW for more than five months. When he was rescued, he was 50 pounds lighter.
Fast forward 59 years. The WWII memorial in Washington, D.C. opens. As much as Kath wanted to go, he couldn’t. He had a sick wife at home.
“It’s my duty to take care of her before I go anyplace.”
Last year, after 65 years of marriage she passed away, and although he’s frail, he’s now ready to leave his home in Janesville, Wis., and head east.
Enter the Finnegans. At no expense to the veterans, they will be driven to the nation’s capital. The first departure is May 17. Kath is already signed up.
“They call them the greatest generation and they truly are,” said Finnegan. “This is just a small small way of thanking them for everything they did for our country.”
“I’ve seen a lot of people shot. I’ve seen a lot of them injured where they would never be any good anymore,” said Kath. “I’ve seen almost every state in the United States. I’ve traveled quite a bit. It would be the last thing I want to see.”
Finnegan estimates the trip will cost $100,000. He hopes donations will cover it. Their website will be up and running this week where people can donate. It will be called www.vetsroll.org.