LONE ROCK – Battery Park is home to Henry Dillon’s Tailor Shop that in 1861 doubled as a recruiting station during the Civil War.
The park, near what remains of the village’s downtown, also includes a 15-foot-high bronze monument erected in 1884 that memorializes the 6th Wisconsin Battery. The unit was made up primarily of recruits from Richland County who would go south and fight in the battles of Vicksburg, Jackson, Corinth and Mission Ridge.
But last week, the park was a convenient and appropriate meeting place for a gathering of World War II and Korean War veterans who came to talk about a one-of-a-kind program that, like Honor Flight, is transporting WWII and Korean War veterans, free of charge, to visit the war memorials in Washington, D.C. Only, instead of taking an airliner to see the war monuments in one day, VetsRoll uses 10 coach buses for a four-day, all-expenses-paid trip that departs May 18 and includes hotels and meals for 200 veterans. They will be accompanied this year by 144 volunteer assistants, many of them with medical backgrounds, who each pay $500.
This year marks the fifth trip for the South Beloit, Ill.-based nonprofit organization that gets a large number of vets and volunteers from Wisconsin but also includes veterans from 20 other states. In the past four years, 725 veterans and “Rosie the Riveters” have taken the trip. There is no other program like it in the country.
“I’ve got lots of books on World War II at home and I’ve read them but this was so special,” said Don Koller, 78, of Spring Green, who was on the 2013 VetsRoll trip. “I just hope that a lot of veterans that haven’t done it will be encouraged to go. They’ll never forget it.”
Koller, who served in Seoul, South Korea, from 1954 to 1956, was among eight veterans who met at the park last Tuesday on a quickly organized gathering prompted by Bud Bernhagen, 83, a Korean War vet from Lone Rock. Bernhagen had called Monday to remind me of the VetsRoll program and upcoming trip.
That led to a call to Lisa Bowen, a VetsRoll volunteer and fundraiser, who in a matter of a few hours on Monday had contacted several veterans and convinced them to meet up at Battery Park just before the lunch hour. Bowen, a grade-school teacher at Lone Rock Elementary next door to the park, will be making her fourth VetsRoll trip as an assistant.
“It’s our job as assistants to make sure the veterans don’t want for anything,” Bowen said. “We’re there to make sure they get to where they need to go comfortably.”
Bowen has also put in countless hours organizing two local fundraisers at the Lone Rock Community Center. The events in 2013 and last month combined to raise more than $23,000 and featured music, food, a bake sale, and silent and live auctions. About 300 people attended each fundraiser.
VetsRoll was founded in 2010 by John and Mark Finnegan, who wanted to do something special in memory of their father, Cy, who served in the South Pacific during WWII. He died of cancer in 2000 before getting a chance to visit the memorials in Washington, D.C. After learning of the Honor Flight program, the brothers, who own Finnegan’s RV Center in South Beloit, Illinois, came up with a motor coach trip as a less physically demanding alternative.
“We’re not in competition with Honor Flight. It’s just an alternative way to honor that generation,” Mark Finnegan said. “The concept has been embraced by the public so well.”
It takes about $300,000 to cover the costs of each trip. Every bus is equipped with a wheelchair lift and makes stops every three and a half hours to allow vets to stretch their legs, refresh and use the bathroom. In addition, five other buses are sent out into Wisconsin and northern Illinois the day before departure to pick up and deliver veterans to Beloit, where they stay in a hotel the night before the caravan leaves for Washington, D.C. Others, like a 95-year-old WWII veteran from Wyoming, one who is a Pearl Harbor survivor, and another, a fighter ace with 23 confirmed kills, will fly into area airports.
This year’s trip leaves on a Sunday with the first overnight in Dayton, Ohio, along with a visit to the National Aviation Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The stop includes a mail call after dinner at the base’s officer’s club where 10,000 letters will be handed out, some from school children and strangers but also from family and friends.
May 19 takes the group to a hotel in Hagerstown, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., with a full day spent on Tuesday touring the memorials. After another night in Hagerstown, the group buses back to Beloit under police escort and hundreds of motorcyclists on May 21. When they arrive back in Wisconsin, 1,200 flags will line Highway 51. Fireworks are planned at Beloit’s Eclipse Center when the vets get off the buses.
“We just have an incredible group of supporters,” Finnegan said.
Lone Rock has fewer than 900 residents and is referred to as “the coldest in the nation … with the warmest heart.” The community’s support of the veterans shows that the billboard on the village’s east side with the slogan is accurate.
Fay Cozine, 80, was a photographer in the Air Force during the Korean War. The Kentucky native met her husband, Bill, a New York native, while stationed in Del Rio, Texas. They moved to Spring Green in 1971 where they raised five children and where Bill worked as a manufacturers’ rep. Fay, who is going on the VetsRoll trip this year, said her husband went in 2013 and came back renewed.
“It changed his life,” Fay Cozine said. “It was a great trip. He’s still talking about it.”
Of course, get a bunch of veterans together and the stories flow.
Several mentioned their pay, which ranged from $26 a month during WWII and up to $92 a month during Korea. Herman Kaldenberg, 90, of Lone Rock, told of serving in the Philippines and Japan during WWII while Bernhagen told of almost getting off a ship in Korea but being diverted to Alaska to help test cold-weather gear and sleeping in a nine-man tent heated with a barrel stove.
Clarence Pulvermacher, 84, of Muscoda, remembered his year and a half in Fairbanks, Alaska. There was plenty of warm clothing provided so getting cold was no excuse, his commanders told him.
“If you got frostbitten, it was a court-martial,” Pulvermacher said.