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Area vets share their stories of flying at the fair

August 3, 2012
By Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent

MARSHALL - Marshall's rich aviation history came to life this week at the 109th Lyon County Fair.

While very few likely witnessed the first airplane demonstration at the Lyon County Fair 100 years ago, some may have read about or heard stories of Leonard Warden Bonney's historic flight from Marshall to Green Valley and back on Sept. 25, 1912. It was also the year that 10-year-old Charles Lindbergh became fascinated with flying after seeing his first plane near Washington, D.C. Eleven years later, in 1923, Lindbergh flew to Marshall in his own plane to give his father, who was campaigning in the area, his first airplane ride.

On Thursday, in commemoration the first exhibition flight at the Lyon County Fair 100 years ago, local residents shared their own military aviation memories on stage at the fair in Marshall.

Article Photos

Photo by Jenny Kirk
Wayne Stegner shared his flight memories during a military aviation presentation Thursday at the Lyon County Fair in Marshall.

"This was a first for many people (at the fair in 1912), to see an airplane," said Trudy Madetzke, aviation memories coordinator. "This morning, we have some men who are going to share military memories. They were collected from residents at Boulder Estates and Hill Street (in Marshall)."

Though 90 years old, Art VanMoorlehem's memory is still sharp. And, he still remembers the first time he took flight.

"My memories of airplanes go back to World War II," he said. "I arrived in England. My brother John had been there for three years."

While on a three-day pass while in the 106th Infantry, VanMoorlehem, who graduated from Minneota in 1940, headed north of London with a few others. It was there that he experienced his first ride, in a big bomber plane.

VanMoorlehem's second aviation memory was not a good one, however. On Dec. 16, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, German armies forced him and other American soldiers to surrender.

"We were understaffed, undersupplied and overran in two days," VanMoorlehem said. "We became prisoners of war."

On Dec. 23, VanMoorlehem said he was in a box car in Germany, headed for a POW camp, when a night bomber, part of an American raid, bombed the train he was on.

"I was one of the lucky ones," he said. "I was on one of the four cars that weren't destroyed."

After surviving the winter in poor conditions, VanMoorlehem and the other POWs were eventually liberated by American forces. He hopped aboard a C-140 cargo plane and finally, a number of days later, arrived home to Chicago.

"After about 5,000 miles by truck, plane, boat, train and streetcar, I was home on VE-Day, 1945," he said. "I was paired with (my wife) Lucille and our two little boys."

On the way to Fitzsimmons Army Hospital near Denver, Colo., where he recovered from tuberculosis, VanMoorlehem caught a glimpse of a large plane.

"I'd never seen it before, but the B-17 looked really small next to it," he said. "After recouping at Fitzsimmons, I was sent home. The war was over for me."

VanMoorlehem also shared Gael Coleman's memories. Coleman's dad had been an Army medic in World War I. Afterward, Coleman's father became employed with the Works Project Administration, which was created by Franklin Roosevelt. When Coleman was approximately 7 years old, his father would take him and his siblings for a ride to the Minneapolis airport.

"I was not very old and it was about 1934 or 1935 and I'm 84 years old now," Coleman wrote. "What I remember most was the thrill of touching an airplane for the first time."

Runways were not lit up back then, Coleman recalled in his written testimony. And, the Minneapolis airport was also small back then.

"You could drive around it in a half-hour," he wrote. "Dad would park at the end of the runway so we could watch the planes come in and take off."

After joining the U.S. Navy and attending boot camp, Coleman was assigned to a Navy hospital. His first airplane ride came after his service in the Navy, which was from 1946-1948, was completed. Coleman flew on a DC-3, two-engine plane to Butte, Mont., to see a buddy. After his flight back to Minneapolis was canceled because of the weather, Coleman ended up hopping a DC-4, four-engine plane. The trip cost him $60.

Coleman ended up becoming a health care administrator in five different states. To this day, he said, he still enjoys airplanes and gets to every air show that he can.

Wayne Stegner of Hendricks shared memories of his first airplane ride on a DC-3 after joining the Sioux Falls, S.D., Guards.

"It was quite an experience for me, having my first airplane ride," Stegner said. "As well as it being my first time away from home, going into the military, I was quite anxious as I recall."

After Guard training and nine months of electronics school, Stegner said he was offered a job at the Sioux Falls Air Guard as a flight simulator instructor.

"Their planes at that time were F-102s," he said. "These airplanes were single seaters equipped with heat-sensored missiles for air-to-air combat. The Guard also had one side-by-side, two-seater 102 used for training purposes."

Each pilot needed to have two hours of simulator time each month to be eligible for "Alert Duty," which was pretty good pay at that time, Stegner said. One time, a pilot asked Stegner if he could get in after hours, and after Stegner agreed, the pilot promised to give him a ride on the F-102 trainer if he could. As it worked out, Stegner got that opportunity.

"One day the phone rang and I had one-half hour to get fitted with a helmet, a parachute and instructions in case of an emergency," Stegner said. "I was quite excited. As we were preparing to take off from the airport in Sioux Falls, the pilot told me to quit breathing so heavy because he couldn't hear anything else."

After finishing the mission, the pilot flew the plane southeast of Hendricks, where Stegner grew up.

"He flew low over the farm a couple of times, then steered the airplane back up into the sky," Stegner said. "It was quite a show for my parents and myself. My father said he could feel the heat and my mother said the dishes rattled in the cupboard. I did not get sick, but experienced the most exciting time in my life."

Stegner also shared his father's first airplane ride, which came in 1947, when Stegner was 5 years old. The morning after a three-day blizzard, the family heard an airplane flying over quite low. Soon after, Stegner recalls that there was a knock at the door. A pilot and his wife had gotten lost because they couldn't see landmarks. They ended up being low on gas after flying around trying to figure out where they were.

"My dad got them some gas and they gave him a ride for payment," Stegner said. "His wife stayed at the house with my mother and myself. My dad talked about his first airplane ride many times and the excitement of landing on the snow."

Stegner also presented Ken Verschaetse's memories, of his time in Alaska as a crash-rescue crewman and then in the weather-tracking division. Verschaetse believed that flying over the North Pole would be something special, but he said it really wasn't. It was just more snow and ice, he said. He did enjoy flying to an Eskimo village one time, and recalls how snug a young mother and her son looked in their furs. It wasn't until he picked up the "cute little boy" that Verschaetse smelled the strong odor of fish.



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