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Belle Plaine’s Ralph Holmes receives a delayed hero’s welcome for his service in World War II

Ralph Holmes enlisted in the U.S. Navy when he was just 17. He served over two years and participated in seven invasions in the Pacific during World War II.

For most soldiers returning from World War II, life picked up where it left off. Work. Family. Getting by and making do. Few received a hero’s welcome home. Years often passed before veterans heard public appreciation for their sacrifices.

“When I got out of the Navy, I was discharged and went home and went back to work,” recalls Ralph Holmes of Belle Plaine, who saw action in the Pacific Theatre. “I wasn’t welcomed back home. I don’t think anybody in World War II was because everybody was in the war. If you were back in the states, you were working as a defense worker. When it was over with, everybody just came back to work and never thought no more about it.”

It wasn’t until 2001 that Holmes, now 83, received his first public thank you for his service. It came when he and some of his former shipmates rode in a Veterans Day parade in Mobile, Ala.

“They was cheering us and yelling, ‘Thanks.’ It kind of amazed me after all these years,” said Holmes, a Cedar Rapids native who enlisted in the Navy in February 1944 at age 17.

A second thank you came when Holmes joined 100 other World War II veterans on the Nov. 10 Honor Flight of the Quad Cities to view the World War II Memorial, other war memorials and Washington, D.C. landmarks.

“Everywhere we went they was cheering us. It was amazing. You just don’t expect things like that,” Holmes recalled of the one-day trip.

World War II veteran Ralph Holmes, Belle Plaine, wears the Honor Flight of the Quad Cities t-shirt he received on his Nov. 10 trip to Washington, D.C. Holmes was among nearly 100 veterans on this year’s final Honor Flight from Moline.

Honor Flight of the Quad Cities is part of the national Honor Flight Network, formed in 2005 to bring World War II veterans and veterans who are terminally ill to the nation’s capital to see their memorial, free of charge. Since its inception, the Honor Flight Network has flown more than 36,000 veterans to Washington, D.C.

Corporate sponsors for the Nov. 10 flight included Casey’s General Store, Marion Hy-Vee and Rockwell Collins. It was the fifth Honor Flight out of Moline in the last year and the final flight for 2009. Two back-to-back flights are planned next April.

As a young seaman, Holmes took basic training at Farragut Naval Station in Idaho. Training was too short for the men headed to war.

“They cut us from 16 to four weeks because they needed us overseas, and I didn’t know nothing,” Holmes recalled.

After picking up the USS Sheridan at Pearl Harbor, Holmes headed to Saipan, an island about 1,500 miles east of the Philippines. It had an airfield and was fortified with 25,000 Japanese troops and 6,000 Japanese naval personnel.

“We took the Army and Marines into landing for the first wave of the invasion,” Holmes said of the June 1944 effort that ultimately cost 3,000 U.S. servicemen their lives and wounded 10,000.

All told, Holmes was involved in seven invasions, including Guam and Okinawa. “Okinawa was the worst. We had a lot of fire in it,” he said of the largest Naval operation in the Pacific that claimed 12,500 American lives.

“We had hundreds and hundreds of planes in the air, and all of a sudden they just disappeared – nothing there, and here comes six planes over. We wondered what that was. One guy said it was our night fighters. It was Japanese planes,” Holmes remembered.

Simply stating he saw “quite a bit” during the war, Holmes said a chance encounter with Gen. Douglas McArthur ranks high among his memories.

“I saw McArthur when he came back from the Philippines. We drove a landing craft and ran to see him. He got off one of them (landing craft) and said, ‘Don’t take pictures now, wait just a minute,’ and he waded back out about 20 feet in the water. I got a kick out of that,” Holmes laughed.

Following his discharge in May 1946, Holmes returned to Cedar Rapids where he became an apprentice carpenter with Skogman for four years, then a carpenter for 11 years. The next 20 years he was a home delivery milkman.

Holmes and his wife, Grace, were married in 1976. They moved to Belle Plaine in 1980 when they purchased the Lincoln Café, which they operated until 1990.

Holmes has two sons and two daughters living out of state; a step-daughter, Marilyn Sokol of Belle Plaine; a step-son, Duane Vavroch of Jewell, Iowa and 30 grandchildren, with another on the way in January.

Holmes’ daughter-in-law, Mary, encouraged him to take the Honor Flight and sent him the application forms. He said he didn’t really want to go, but his family told him he should make the trip.

Honor Flight of the Quad Cities contacted Holmes a couple weeks before the Nov. 10 flight to say they had a opening for him. Other family members, including a grandson who is an Iraq vet, a stepson, daughter-in-law and nephew wanted to go along but couldn’t make arrangements on such short notice.

The big day started early for the veterans, who met at Westdale Mall at 4 a.m. and were bussed to the Quad Cities Airport for their 7 a.m. flight to Washington, D.C.

They were surprised by the reception they received at Dulles International Airport.

“There were about 75 people, some was military and some was civilians. I was in seat 1 on the airplane, and I was one of the first ones off. When I got into the waiting area, it almost scared me. I wasn’t expecting it. They started yelling and cheering and waving flags,” Holmes said.

Accompanying Holmes on the trip was his Honor Flight guardian, retired Cedar Rapids police officer Tim Dolan. Guardians assist veterans for the day and make the trip at their own expense. An asthmatic, Holmes requested a guardian because he thought he might need a wheelchair to get to the different stops on the day’s itinerary. As it turned out, buses dropped the veterans off close to each site.

“I only had to walk about a hundred feet. The longest walk was the Lincoln Memorial, and that was about two blocks. I got kind of tired there, but I made it,” Holmes said.

Other sites the veterans visited included the Air Force and Iwo Jima Memorials, the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington was a highlight for Holmes. “That just floored me. I didn’t realize it’s that big. As far as you could see is markers,” he said.

Holmes said the World War II Memorial was very impressive. “It’s amazing that they could get all that acknowledgement in that area – of Europe and the Pacific, and of the wounded and dead.”

The veterans were all very appreciative for the Honor Flight and the opportunity to see their memorial. Holmes said they were treated like royalty. Food was plentiful, and on the return flight each received several letters from Cedar Rapids’ Prairie High School students thanking them for their service and sacrifices.

When their return flight landed at the Moline airport late that evening, a bagpiper and cheering crowds greeted the veterans.

It had been a full day – Holmes left Belle Plaine at 2 a.m. and returned 24 hours later – and he had not slept, but the trip was well worth it.

Describing himself as the “young one” on his flight, Holmes said he wishes more World War II veterans would make the trip.

“You’d be amazed at how they take care of those people. They have wheelchairs and lifts into the buses and airplanes. We had people permanently in wheelchairs. They take care of you like you are a king. You do nothing.”

UPDATED December 16, 2009 11:25 AM

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