May 28, 2013 | 03:50 PMIt's taken 60 years, nearly a lifetime, but the nation is throwing its arms around the men and women who served and sacrificed during World War II and the Korean War.
Last week, nearly 200 veterans and about 100 volunteer caregivers boarded 10 buses and two support vehicles in Beloit for a four-day journey to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials and monuments erected to their dedicated and faithful service, and for those who never made it back home.
Called VetsRoll and organized by Mark and John Finnegan, owners of Finnegans' RV Center, Beloit, the program is providing veterans with a much-deserved free ride to Washington, D.C. The program is a ground-based version of the Freedom Flight, which flies veterans to Washington, D.C. for free, and operates as Badger Honor Flight out of Wisconsin.
Actually, the rides aren't free. These veterans paid their fare long ago.
VetsRoll picked up veterans in Lake Geneva at the Walmart parking lot on Saturday, May 18.
Among the Lake Geneva-area contingent were Ed Jaros of Lake Geneva, and four friends with Geneva Lake area connections, Ed Grendahl, Marines; Larry Bettenhausen and George Johnson, Army; and Jack Manzella, Navy.
The five are all Korean War veterans, although Jaros did catch the end of World War II. They said they learned of VetsRoll and signed up for it at the 2012 Walworth County Fair.
For four days, they were all passengers aboard Bus 2.
"We traveled caravan style," said Jaros, who served in both the Navy and the Army. "Each state provided state troopers as escorts. It was a wonderful trip."
Jaros said he went on the Honor Flight, and it was a wonderful experience. But that was for one day. VetsRoll is a more leisurely, four-day journey.
"It was less of a rush than Badger Honor Flight," Jaros said.
Manzella said he appreciated the slower pace of the VetsRoll tour.
"It was a great experience. You got to meet other veterans," he said.
Jaros said he met a vet from Kenosha who served in the same division as he did in Korea at the same time. However, it took more than 50 years for the two Army comrades' paths to cross, on a bus outbound from Lake Geneva.
Each bus had eight attendants and two nurses to watch over veterans who had special medical needs, Grendahl said.
Leaving Beloit's Eclipse Center shortly after 5 a.m. Sunday, May 19, the veterans' caravan headed out to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio.
There, the group had dinner in the officers mess. And then there was a military-style mail call, said Grendahl.
He said they all received packages of thank-you letters and cards from kids from Rock and Walworth county schools.
They stayed in Dayton overnight.
"We did not get much sleep," said Grendahl, who did not sound like he was complaining. He said the nurses would come knocking on their doors about 3 a.m., making sure the vets were feeling well and taking their medications.
"Some of us have medical issues," added Bettenhausen.
Shortly before 6 a.m. Monday, they were on their way to Hagerstown, Md., where the vets stopped for the night to gather their strength for the trip to the nation's capital.
The itinerary says the vets had breakfast starting 4 a.m. Tuesday. By 8 a.m., their buses had reached Arlington National Cemetery.
The vets said they received a short tour of Arlington Cemetery.
Jaros said his group got to visit the grave of actor and war hero Audie Murphy and the grave of President John F. Kennedy.
Grendahl, Bettenhausen, Manzella and Johnson said their group didn't get to see Kennedy's burial site.
But they all saw the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The vets toured the World War II Memorial and saw the Korean War Memorial.
Manzella said the weather was ideal in Washington D.C. In fact, at the World War II Memorial, it may have been a little too warm, he said.
Grendahl said the attendants were always there, asking if the vets needed a rest. Those who did were pushed in wheel chairs until they regained their strength.
With some pride, Grendahl added that although he and his four friends felt the heat and occasionally felt tired, they never needed the wheelchairs. Those, he said, were reserved for those who really needed it, many of whom were World War II vets now in their 90s.
There were some surprises. Grendahl said that while in Washington, D.C., he met a friend from Chicago he had not seen in years. That friend now lives in the Washington, D.C. area, he said.
Johnson said his daughter, Karina, also met him in Washington.
After a day of tours through the Washington, D.C. monuments and museums and dinner, the vets were back at their hotel in Hagerstown.
They were expected back in South Beloit by 9:25 p.m. Wednesday. But things ran a bit late. The buses didn't arrive at their final destination until 11 p.m.
But that didn't dampen the spirits of those waiting for the heroes to return.
People were waiting for them to arrive back in Beloit. They were also met by the mayor of Beloit, military spokesmen and fireworks.
Jaros called the homecoming "awesome."
"There must have been thousands of people welcoming us home," Jaros said.
"We were tired, but that woke us up," said Manzella. "They really did it up."
"It made us feel like we were important for five or 10 minutes," said Grendahl.
"It made us feel like we won the war," Manzella said, to laughing agreement from his friends.
And at the end of the trip, the vets received gifts from locals.
The Knitting Grandmas of Janesville provided each vet with a homemade afghan. And each vet received a jacket and hat.
But the most precious thing they may have come away with were the memories.
"It was worth it," Grendahl said.
And the trip may not be over.
The vets of Bus 2 may have their own reunion, said Grendahl. He said they're planning a get-together for sometime in October.
The five veterans who took the bus from Lake Geneva to Beloit to participate in VetsRoll come from all walks of life, although the tides of time have cast them across the country.
Edward Jaros lives in Lake Geneva, and Ed Grendahl and Jack Manzella still live in Chicago, when they're not vacationing in the Geneva Lake area.
Larry Bettenhausen now lives in eastern Tennessee and George Johnson lives in the Los Angeles area.
Jaros was interviewed by phone, while Grendahl, Manzella, Johnson and Bettenhausen met with a reporter at Grendahl's summer home just outside Fontana.
n "I enlisted in the Navy in World War II to become an air cadet," said Jaros.
Unfortunately for Jaros, because the war was winding down, he was too late for pilot training.
He did some meteorology work in the states. At war's end, he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve.
When the Korean War began in 1950, Jaros was drafted.
"In the real world, I thought I was in the Navy," Jaros said. But, it was the Army that drafted him.
In June 1951, Jaros wound up in Korea, part of the 2nd Infantry Division.
Because of his experience as a meteorologist in the Navy, Jaros was assigned to the division's artillery regiment. Jaros' job was to determine weather effects on artillery targeting.
Jaros rose to the rank of Navy seaman first class and to corporal in the the Army. He said the two ranks are comparable.
Jaros said that after he left the military he earned a commercial pilot license with an instrument rating, but learned that returning military pilots were receiving preference when applying for jobs at civilian airlines.
On the GI Bill, Jaros attended dental school and became a dentist.
"You roll with the punches," said Jaros.
n Manzella served on a radar destroyer, called a DDR. In 1952, his ship was patrolling the waters around Korea, keeping an electronic eye peeled for enemy aircraft and a sonar ear out for suspicious submarines.
Manzella said he joined the Navy to become a ship's plumber. Instead, he was assigned to ship's stores.
Manzella rose to the rank of petty officer 3rd class, equivalent to a sergeant in the Army. And when he got out of the Navy, he became a licensed plumber in private life.
n George Johnson was in the U.S. Army from 1952 to 1954 and ended his career in the military as a corporal.
He served with an Army unit that carried out amphibious landings called the "Aqua Marines."
Johnson said that when he got out of the military, he worked for awhile in the painters union. He then worked in accounting, did brokerage work and was an appraiser.
Johnson now lives in California. Raised in Chicago, he said his family would often visit Williams Bay on vacation.
n Bettenhausen was one of 17 siblings growing up on a farm in North Dakota.
An older brother joined the U.S. Army and then became a paratrooper. Bettenhausen said he and four siblings did the same, all becoming soldiers in the Army's airborne divisions.
A fifth brother, the youngest, decided to join the Navy.
"But he turned out all right," Bettenhausen said, giving former sailor Manzella a sly smile.
Bettenhausen said his unit made one jump during his time in Korea. It was a practice jump on an island. The jump completed, the soldiers discovered there were no bridges on the island.
Boats had to shuttle them back to the mainland, Bettenhausen said.
"The Navy to the rescue," said Manzella, shooting an equally sly smile back at Bettenhausen.
After the military, Milwaukee looked like an exciting place, so he attended Milwaukee School of Engineering and then worked in Chicago working on diesel research and development first for International Harvester, and then for IH's successor company, Navistar.
Bettenhausen now lives in east Tennessee. His wife, Evelyn, is George Johnson's sister.
n Grendahl served in the U.S. Marine 3rd Division. The division never left the states, Grendahl said, with just a hint of disappointment. The Marine division was held in strategic reserve in case it might be needed in Korea or elsewhere, he said.
Grendahl left the Marines as a private first class. He then joined the Chicago Fire Department and was a firefighter for nearly 30 years.
Grendahl said he used to come up to the Williams Bay area with his family when he was a child. Although a Chicago Bears and Cubs fan, he admits to having a "leg in Wisconsin" for most of his life.