COLUMBIA — The lobby of the Courtyard Marriott hotel in southeast Columbia was packed to capacity at 1 a.m. Wednesday.
No one was demanding to see the manager to complain about the bagpipes or drums being played loudly in the parking lot. Or about the 263 motorcycles idling outside, exhaust pipes rumbling in the stillness of the morning.
The Central Missouri Honor Flight was holding a Welcome Home party at the hotel, with about 400 guests on hand to greet the 70 or so veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam after their 23-hour, 1,800-mile, whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C.
Volunteer Katie Roberson said the bikers met the two chartered buses in Kingdom City, and, along with Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers, escorted the returning vets down Interstate 70 to the party. Boone County Fire Protection District Pipes & Drums played service anthems and patriotic music.
The Honor Flight participants had left at about 2 a.m. Tuesday for the airport in St. Louis, on their way to tour the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War memorials in D.C. They also made stops at the Air Force memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
As each veteran filed off the bus — more energized than weary, despite the hour — his name and branch of service was read over a loudspeaker to a cheering crowd.
Former Marine Capt. Ralph Dobbs, in a brown dress uniform adorned with campaign ribbons and medals, snapped a smart salute and greeted each veteran with a few words and a handshake.
For 86-year-old John Warkentin, a U.S. Navy veteran from St. James who served in three wars, it was his first trip to Washington.
“It rained off and on all day, but it wasn’t too bad,” Warkentin said. “I’ve got to say the World War II Memorial was so impressive. But, if you’ve never seen it, you really have to go see the changing of the guard (at Arlington).”
Jim Etling, from Arnold, was persuaded to get off the tour bus when some people on the flight discovered he'd been on the last expedition Admiral Richard Byrd ever made to Antarctica. They wanted to take Etling’s photo next to a statue of the late explorer on the Avenue of Heroes. Sitting at a table in the hotel lobby with two of his daughters, a granddaughter and a great-grandson, Etling shared more stories of his day’s adventure.
Among the last to leave the lobby Wednesday was World War II veteran Harry Hall from Moberly. Hall, who served aboard submarines in the latter part of World War II, went on an Honor Flight a few years ago. On Wednesday, he was wearing a white vest with his name embroidered on it, which was spotted by Ava Swofford, the wife of one of this trip’s participants.
The name jogged a memory, and when her husband, Ross Swofford, got off the bus, she brought the two together. It was the first time in nearly 60 years the two men had seen each other.
“I was the principal at Palmyra High School, and (Swofford) was the ag teacher, back in about 1955,” Hall said. “We never even knew each other had been in the service. It just wasn’t something we really talked about back then."
For information about upcoming Central Missouri Honor Flights, check the organization's website.
Have you had a personal experience with Honor Flight? Read one Columbia family's first-person experience here, and share your own by emailing submissions@ColumbiaMissourian.com.
Supervising editor is Brian Kratzer.