Visit to Richard Bong Center a wish come trueIf you could have one wish, what would it be? For one veteran, setting foot in the Richard I. Bong Veterans Memorial Center and seeing a P-38 Lightning plane again was his “Wish of a Lifetime.” Thanks to a non-profit organization of that name, he visited the center Thursday.
By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram
If you could have one wish, what would it be?
For one veteran, setting foot in the Richard I. Bong Veterans Memorial Center and seeing a P-38 Lightning plane again was his “Wish of a Lifetime.” Thanks to a non-profit organization of that name, he visited the center Thursday.
Sgt. Irving Polan and his wife Edna spoke with students, toured the museum and shared his story of service.
“I have been involved in my small way with Major Bong,” said Polan, who served as an armorer with the 9th Fighter Squadron of the 49th Fighter Group of the Army Air Force. He armed many P-38s, including Bong’s.
“I took care of his guns,” the 91-year-old veteran told the students Thursday. “He talked to me three times.” Polan also recalled lining up with his fellow soldiers when Bong received the Congressional Medal.
A few years ago, Polan, who lives in Florida, took an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. to view the numerous war memorials.
“It was one of the best days of his life,” his wife said. “I think he was on cloud nine when he came back.”
But Polan’s bucket list wasn’t complete. He wanted to visit the Bong Center, to see the aircraft he once armed and show it to his wife after he’d “bent her ear” about it.
“He appreciates the fact that his wartime experiences are really something special,” Edna Polan said. “And he always admired Maj. Bong and felt that it would be wonderful to see the museum. He would love to see the planes that he used to load …” Wish of a Lifetime paid for the entire trip, including flight and lodging.
Irving Polan shared stories Thursday of his service in the Pacific Theatre. He spoke about the Australian’s determination to have teatime at 4 p.m., regardless of the circumstances, and the awful food.
“One time they served us lamb with the skin, the hide and the wool and it was one big gray mess,” Polan said. “I didn’t eat lamb, sheep or anything for a number of years because of that.”
He talked about the terrible battle on the Kokoda Trail in Papau New Guinea.
“Can you imagine, you’re loaded down with equipment, you’re sweating something terrible, not even decent food,” he told the students. “Your clothes and your shoes and anything that’s leather is turning green with mold because it’s wet. It’s constant. And you don’t know from the next step that you take out of the jungle will come somebody who’s trying to kill you.”
He also shared a story of the only time he jumped in a foxhole. He ended up jumping right back out because it was infested with “zillions of ants.”
Although he spent three and a half years in the service, Polan said it felt like 20. He spoke of the close bonds formed in the midst of wartime.
“It comes to a point that you are so well trained to do what you do, frightened as you are, you still do it,” he told the children. “And you don’t want to let your buddies down because your friends in the military are closer than your brothers and sisters will ever be. You share experiences together, experiences of facing death, losing people, losing friends so don’t show your fear.”
Center executive director Bob Fuhrman said he was pleased and surprised by the Florida veteran’s request to visit. It is not uncommon to find a similar phenomenon among veterans who weren’t career military, he said.
“That short march of years has a profound effect on the rest of their lives.”
Polan was looking forward to talking specifics about the P-38 with Fuhrman, such as the tricks they used to keep the planes in fighting shape in all weather. He also hoped that news of his visit would reach old friends from the 5th Air Force. He’s tried to contact them, but failed. If any of his Air Force buddies are out there, Polan asked them to contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’ll be thinking of them this morning. A flag will be raised shortly after 9 a.m. in front of the center in memory of all the 5th Air Force veterans who have passed on. The ceremony is open to the public.
For more information on “Wish of a Lifetime,” which grants wishes to seniors age 65 and older, look up the non-profit organization’s website, http://www.seniorwish.org/.