By Dick Purinton
Island World War II navy veteran Jim Gau participated this past June in a special Honor Flight out of Appleton, Wisconsin.
Specially chartered flights to our nation’s Capitol are arranged for veteran guests at no charge. Their day is filled with planned activities designed both to allow them the opportunity to view national monuments firsthand, and also to honor their military service by a showing of thanks.
Born and raised in DeKalb, Ill., Gau was motivated to join the service when he was still a young student. He recalled attending classes at a nearby teacher’s college while still in high school, believing it would help prepare him for the military. He earned sufficient high school credits for an early graduation and then joined up at age 17 under his father’s signature of permission. His father, also named James, was an army veteran of WWI who tried to re-up when the United States entered WWII, but he was refused because he was too old.
In 1944 Gau attended boot camp in California, but he returned to the Great Lakes Naval Base near Chicago for basic diesel and advanced diesel classes. The knowledge he gained in his rate was so thorough that for a time that he was held back as an instructor at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, rather than being allowed to transfer into submarines, his desired area of service.
Eventually, Gau served aboard the Pomfert, one of several dozen submarines built by the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company for the war effort. When the war ended, and in his last month of active duty, Gau was assigned to help decommission ships in Apra Harbor, Guam, and for a time he guarded Japanese POWs.
Upon discharge from active duty he pursued a teaching career, but Gau continued in the naval reserve for approximately ten years. Then in 1980, following a career in teaching and school administration, he and his wife, Marilyn, who also taught, moved into their new Island home near Little Lake. They enjoyed many seasons of retirement together, surrounded by nature, before Marilyn passed away in March 2012.
“I had a call one day in April, from someone I didn’t know, who asked if my military service number was 301831. You never forget your service number, “ Gau said. “She told me they were holding a seat for me on an Honor Flight.”
Although he was unable to accept the first suggested flight date, “she kept me on the list.” Gau was then rescheduled for the June Honor Flight.
Gau recalled that morning, when he and the other WWII veterans gathered at the Appleton airport. He had spent the night in a nearby Appleton hotel where approximately 40 other out-of-town veterans also stayed. It was a short night’s sleep with an “early reveille,” he said, before their bus ride to board the 5:30 a. m. flight.
The sense of welcome for the WWII veterans was already in the air at that early dawn hour, an atmosphere that followed his group throughout the day. When their bus arrived at the Appleton airport, they were greeted by well-wishers, a crowd of young and old that included uniformed Army personnel. They each received an Honor Flight tee-shirt and met their personal flight guardian. Cathy Konen, an Appleton resident, introduced herself to Gau, and she remained by his side throughout the day until their plane returned that evening. The pilot greeted the veterans, welcoming them aboard before taking off, and once in the air, they were served breakfast, then snacks. In all, his plane carried 98 WWII veterans, three of whom were women veterans who had served as military nurses, plus the guardians.
Their arrival in Washington, D. C. later that morning was once again festive and patriotic. A military band played as they were ushered through airport corridors, and East coast greeters lined up to thank them for their service.
“Each time we got on or off the plane, there were crowds of people we didn’t know,” Gau said. “It was heartwarming.”
Three large buses fitted with wheelchair lifts transported the veterans through the Capitol, circling slowly several monuments before parking near the World War II Memorial. A U. S. Army Drill Team performed precision maneuvers for their appreciative audience.
Photos from the day’s activities were later assembled by Gau’s guardian as a momento of the flight. On the closing page of Jim Gau’s album was inscribed the following:
It was an honor and a privilege to be your Guardian on the Old Glory Honor Flight. We had a wonderful day and I’m so happy I got to share it with you. I think we really had a great time! God Bless – Cathy Konen, honor flight guardian
Before boarding their flight that morning, Gau had learned that Konen’s husband was a cancer patient. He asked if she didn’t need to stay home to assist her husband, instead.
“He insists that I go, that I do this,” she replied. Konen and other guardians have flown many times, whenever an honor flight allows them the opportunity to serve veterans.