The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

November 10, 2010

Honor Flight combines past and presents

A Mankato woman takes part in a veterans’ Honor Flight to Washington

MANKATO — As Elaine Leiferman looked at the faces of her fellow veterans on her flight to Washington, D.C, she saw a dying generation looking back.

In October, the lifelong Mankato resident was among 110 veterans that participated in an Honor Flight — a free one-day trip to the nation’s capital to tour the various memorials most veterans have never seen but were erected in their honor.

The airplane also carried 60 Honor Flight guardians whose only task is to see to the well-being and comfort of the plane’s treasured cargo, many of whom need respirators and wheelchairs to combat the ailments of time and wounds of war.

As the airplane descended on the city where 65 years earlier Leiferman was stationed in an all-female unit, she couldn’t help but remember the time when the frail men and women who traveled with her were once fighting and dying on the front lines, leading this country with a strength she fears is all but absent in younger generations.

She remembered her dance with Swanny, a soldier who returned from the front lines badly burned from his waist to his ankles. Working as a pharmacist mate in the WAVES unit — Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service — Leiferman served in two plastic surgery wards from 1944 to 1945.

She dressed bandages, consoled the scarred and laid to rest the departed; and, in Swanny’s case, coated his legs in the moisturizer lanolin before making daily attempts to stretch the taut, grafted skin on the back of his thighs and calves. She remembers the man, though severely hobbled by the painful treatments, straightened up best he could to ask her hand in a dance.

“I’d just as soon dance than breathe,” said Leiferman, recollecting that her answer was yes. She couldn’t recall the tune, but said it was the 1940s so it “must have been good.”

As the memories returned while en route from Rochester, Honor Flight guardians passed around mail bags to each veteran. Leiferman’s contained a package tied in brown paper and string — just like she might have received during the war — filled with cookies and hard candy. She also received dozens of letters, from her own children and grandchildren as well as complete strangers, thanking her for her bravery and service.

One of those letters was from a Jewish man whose parents’ lives were taken in the Holocaust.

Even a month after returning from the flight, Leiferman’s recollections of those letters — even though they were received decades after she last donned her uniform — wring tears from her eyes. She said she responded personally to each one.

While in D.C., the Honor Flight veterans toured the World War II Memorial as well as those for the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Leiferman also saw the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, a magnificent structure that reminded her of the women with whom she served; women like herself, Leiferman said, who were drawn by a sense of adventure and duty.

Leiferman was 19 years old when she was compelled to leave her Mankato home for the first time. Her older brother had died a few years earlier and Leiferman felt obligated to serve the country in his stead. So in 1944, she stepped out of her home where she remembered hosting the vagabonds who would sweep in from the evening train looking for work, or food, and boarded a train for New York City. She eventually arrived at Hunter College in the Bronx, where she spent her first few weeks training.

From there, she was stationed at Camp Moffett, a naval base in Great Lakes, Ill. Then, she was transferred to a hospital across the street from Arlington National Cemetery where Leiferman and her fellow servicewomen operated a 72-bed facility and, during their off hours, would pester the stoic-faced cemetery guards who “didn’t dare to so much as wink at you.”

During her 15 months in service, Leiferman remembered working 12-hour shifts — or were they only eight? — and sometimes being called on to work more.

She remembers being given the duty once to monitor a young soldier who had contracted tuberculous meningitis during the war. Her job was to care for him during the night; yet, the disease claimed him before sunrise.

Though his name escapes her, she remembered he was only 17.

Such details, however, can be hard to recall when the memories have remained quiet so long.

The now-85-year-old said she’s never really felt like a veteran and, for most of her life, reserved the term only for those who served in combat. She eventually married a disabled veteran and Leiferman admits neither of them felt the need to discuss their service. Only scattered artifacts from the pair’s military travels provided evidence to their seven children.

“It was the chance of a lifetime,” Leiferman said, pausing to add: “But we never felt like we needed to talk about it. It was in the past.”

Leiferman admits that the past came full circle for the veterans on the Honor Flight when their airplane touched down in Rochester after their day of tribute.

Arriving at 11 p.m., honor guards lined the runway in white gloves and full regalia, music filled the air and hundreds of people — including Leiferman’s family and grandchildren — shook their hands and blew them kisses while shouting “welcome home.”

Sixty-five years ago, while stationed in Washington, D.C., Leiferman could hear the ticker-tape parade celebrations in the street but, like many women in service, wasn’t allowed to participate. When she returned to Mankato, she was met only by her family and the life she had left behind.

But when the plane hit the runway in Rochester, returning the generation that survived the Great Depression and the Second Great War to their homes, Leiferman said she was overcome by the hero’s welcome.

“Just thinking about it gets to me,” she said.

Now in the December of her lifetime, Leiferman said she’s always felt the need to be “on the go.”

Later in life, that same need would take Leiferman to the ruins of Machu Picchu, to the beaches of Belize and to nearly all the countries of Europe. That need took her to college at 50 and her first civilian job a short while later.

Leiferman credits her husband – who was permanently hunched from a back disorder but would still dance with her until the day he died nearly two decades ago — as a man who never tried to cage her free spirit. She credits her children, who have families of their own and still impart some of her values.

But most of all, Leiferman credits the providence that allowed her to pursue her calling, no matter where that calling took her.

“I just have those feet that itch to move,” she said. “I have been blessed.”

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