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The flight of a lifetime

mcwilliams

Dean McWilliams of Montezuma will be among the 350 veterans to visit the World War II Memorial on the first Central Iowa Honor Flight to leave Des Moines Aug. 11. McWilliams served 2.5 years in the U.S. Army 135th Infantry, 34th (Red Bull) Division, seeing action in Italy. Tucked in the corner of the photo is a picture of his second wife and high school sweetheart, Harriett. The couple was married in December 1994.

Dean McWilliams fought for America’s freedom on the World War II battlefields, and later fought for the rights of Iowa Cattleman on Capitol Hill.

Next month, the 86-year-old Montezuma man will board a charted 747 airplane bound for Washington, D.C., on the first ever Central Iowa Honor Flight.

“One thousand World War II Veterans die everyday,” said McWilliams from his modest ranch home on the east edge of Montezuma. “I thank God that I am alive and can witness this.”

McWilliams will be among 350 Iowa veterans on the historic flight Tuesday, Aug. 11, the first from Des Moines since the inaugural Honor Flight took place in May of 2005. While in Washington, D.C., McWilliams and the others will visit the World War II Memorial, where they will enjoy a box lunch and the camaraderie of their fellow war buddies.

“They are able to share their experience with others who had similar experiences,” said Bill Ballenger, a veteran and volunteer with Honor Flight in Council Bluffs.

“It is kind of a therapy and is one of the benefits (of the experience).”

The one-day flight and tour will also include stops at the Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Iwo Jima Memorial and the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery.

“I’m looking forward to the experience and just being there,” said McWilliams. Ballenger’s son, Jeff, and assistant Vicky Vermatt, both of Council Bluffs, are coordinating the Des Moines flight. They have coordinated two previous flights in western Iowa. Both flew from Omaha, the first with 109 veterans, followed by a second flight with 115 veterans.

Other Honor Flights hubs have been established in the Quad Cities, Sioux City and Mason City.

“We are pleased that someone invited us to communicate with the folks in Des Moines,” said Ballenger of coordinating  the trip. “We are already working to establish a second fight out of Des Moines.”

Hy-Vee has underwritten the cost of the first Central Iowa Honor Flight and related activities with a $250,000 gift.

The veterans will be treated to a prefl ight meal served in the Hy-Vee Hall the evening before. More than 800 veterans and their families are expected to attend.

Veterans are also given a disposable camera and a Hawkeye gold Polo shirt with pocket.

“It helps us keep everybody together,” said Ballenger of the gold-colored shirts.

Veteran and retired Sen. Bob Dole has been invited to meet with the group and give a speech during their tour of the memorials. Ballenger said Sen. Dole’s attendance has not been confirmed.

McWilliams was notified last month of his acceptance on the Honor Flight, and may be the only Poweshiek County veteran going on this tour.

According to Ballenger, veterans are accepted on a first-come basis, except in certain situations when a veteran is near death and is bumped ahead. A medical team, guardians and staff also travel with the veterans on the flight.

The return flight is expected to arrive in Des Moines at around 11 p.m. the same day.

World War II Memorial

The National World War II Memorial opened to the public on April 29, 2004, and was dedicated by then President George W. Bush on May 29, 2004, two days before Memorial Day.

McWilliams first learned about the honor flight while seated next to Sen. Dole during a Veteran’s Day luncheon at Grinnell College last year.

“He invited me to go online and get an (honor flight) application and I did,” recalled McWilliams.

McWilliams is a 1940 Deep River High School graduate. While studying at Iowa State University, he received a call from Uncle Sam in the fall of 1944. During the war, McWilliams served in the U.S. Army 135th Infantry, 34th (Red Bull) Division. The 34th division was made up of mostly soldiers from Iowa.

In April 1945, while McWilliams was fighting in Italy, Sen. Dole was wounded by German machine gun fire one-half of a mile away and lay on the battlefield for nine hours before being evacuated.

After the war ended, McWilliams was transferred to the 88th Division where he spent a short time teaching agriculture courses to soldiers, and teaching newly enlisted men to be non-commissioned officers. He was discharged on July 2, 1946.

After the war McWilliams returned to Iowa and married his first wife, Marie, in 1947. The couple had two children, Bob of Deep River, and Mary of Story City. After his first wife died in 1994, McWilliams married Harriett, his high school classmate and sweetheart, in December of that year.

McWilliams spent the majority of his working days farming and raising cattle on 800 acres near Deep River. He later became active in the Iowa Cattleman’s Association, and during the 1980s would often take daily trips to Capitol Hill to lobby for cattleman in Iowa and across the nation. McWilliams was in Washington, D.C., so often, many of the senators and congressmen knew him on a first name basis.

“My efforts (on behalf of the cattleman) caught the attention of Sen. Dole, and from that we became friends.”

The two have remained friends through the years. It was during the Clinton Administration that Sen. Dole helped spearhead the fundraising that led to construction of the World War II Memorial.

To this day McWilliams remains active in farming, and working with his son, Bob, on the family farm.

“It’s an extreme honor to be asked,” said McWilliams of the Honor Flight. For more information on the Honor Flight Network, visit the Internet at www.honorflight.org.

UPDATED July 28, 2009 1:01 PM

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