Tom Weleske, Hallock, Minn., gets interviewed by WDAY anchor and producer, Amy Unrau, who also happens to be his granddaughter, while on the WDAY Honor Flight. Unrau and other family members surprised Tom with the trip for his birthday earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Amy Unrau)
By Linda Andersen
WDAY anchor and producer Amy Unrau’s enthusiasm for arranging a surprise for her grandfather Tom Weleske (in the form of a WDAY Honor Flight trip), spilled out in an email sent to “The Kittson County Enterprise” in early fall.
“My family has been planning the WDAY Honor Flight surprise for my grandpa, Tom Weleske, for months! I started by gauging interest from my uncle Shane. He knew my grandpa would love it, so we later got my grandma involved who told us grandpa had talked about wanting to go on it.”
Amy went on to tell how they let her grandpa in on the plans at a family birthday party by giving him a wrapped gift – a book, “In Their Honor,” which is about the history of the WDAY Honor Flight. “When he saw the book, he said ‘WDAY Honor Flight, that’d be interesting.’ I then told him to open it up. He flipped open the front page, found his acceptance letter and just stared at it. I then asked him to read it out loud. The first line says, ‘Dear Veteran: Congratulations and welcome aboard the WDAY Honor Flight!’ After he read that, he paused. We all knew it was finally sinking in for him.”
What exactly is the WDAY Honor Flight? According to their website (http://wdayhonorflight.areavoices.com/, “The WDAY Honor Flight is a certified regional hub of the national Honor Flight Network. The goal of WDAY Honor Flight is to send area veterans to their memorials in Washington D.C. free of charge.”
Tom with his wife, Helen, made the trip to Washington D.C. on November 5th and 6th. During a recent interview, Tom told about his time in the Navy and Tom and Helen shared about their WDAY Honor Flight trip.
Tom enlisted in the Navy about two weeks after his graduation from Hallock High School in 1951, which was during the time of the Korean War. He said a couple of his buddies went into the military at the same time – Kermit Pearson to the Navy and Chester Flower to the Air Force.
After training in Great Lakes, Ill., he spent about three and one-half years in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic, primarily on a heavy cruiser the U.S.S. Baltimore which Tom said was “ready to do combat,” if necessary, and carried 1,150 men. “We went to 42 foreign countries,” Tom recalled.
He worked as a machinist mate on the ship, dealing primarily with refrigeration and mechanics.
“My proudest moment in the Navy was when the ship (U.S.S Baltimore) represented the United States at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation,” stated Tom. The event took place at Spithead, an English port.
Tom explained further about the event saying that every country that had a navy sent their best ship. The ships lined up in rows. Queen Elizabeth was on board a frigate that traveled up and down the rows of ships. “She went within an eighth of a mile of our ship,” reported Tom. He added that all the ships were “decorated with lights from stern to bow and up to the highest point.” Ultimately, Queen Elizabeth pushed a button and all the ships lit up.
Tom also mentioned another highlight of his time in the military. “I went through the Panama Canal and that was very interesting. I would like to go back there as a trip.”
Tom remembers, too, when the Korean War ended. He said he was out in the Atlantic and the captain shared the news and said a prayer. Tom added that within two weeks, over 200 of his shipmates had been taken off the ship by helicopters.
Tom eventually returned to Hallock, where he met Helen Layhon at a dance in 1955. They married in 1957 and reared a family in Hallock where Tom created a business, Weleske Improvements.
How does Tom feel about his military experience? “I wouldn’t trade it (military experience) for anything – it’s an education you don’t have to pay for and you get paid for it.”
Helen accompanied Tom on the recent Honor Flight trip. Tom and Helen both commented on lines of people at the airports in Fargo and Washington D.C. that hollered statements such as “Thank you veterans!” In Fargo, a band also played in honor of the veterans.
The trip was a full two-day affair that began when they boarded a plane in Fargo early on November 5th. They flew non-stop to Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. where the group boarded buses to see the sites. They visited Arlington National Cemetery, which they said was dotted with graves “as far as the eye can see,” and viewed the Changing of the Guard Ceremony. They viewed the Franklin Roosevelt Memorial which they described as “impressive” and said included walls with many of Roosevelt’s quotations on them. The first day concluded with a banquet and entertainment.
Highlights of the second day included visits to the Archives Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, the Korean Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. At the Archives, they were impressed by the “perfect” penmanship of some early Americans. At the Korean Memorial they viewed 38 statues of soldiers which were made from aluminum. Those 38 soldiers represent the 38 months of the Korean War and the 38th parallel which separates North and South Korea. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Tom and Helen were assisted in searching for names of war casualties from Hallock by a directory which was “like a Minneapolis phone book.”
The trip could be described as short and sweet. After a second day of sightseeing, the group returned to Dulles Airport and then Fargo. Helen summed up the Weleskes’ feelings about the trip by saying, “It was very emotional – they treated you like royalty.” A granddaughter’s surprise for her grandfather had been much appreciated.
Are you a veteran who would enjoy such a trip or do you know of someone who would? Check out the WDAY Honor Flight website which states that “potential trips are in the works.”
(LEFT) Tom Welske stands next to the Navy Memorial in Wahington DC during the WDAY Honor Flight tour. (RIGHT) Tom and Helen Weleske, Hallock, Minn., in front of the Washington Monument during the WDAY Honor Flight tour. (Photo courtesy of Amy Unrau)