Sylvester Riemann

Sylvester Riemann, a U.S. Air Force veteran during and after the Korean War, will be on a tour of Washington, D.C., war memorials this weekend thanks to the national Honor Flight Network's Lone Eagle program.

Sylvester “Red” Riemann’s career in the U.S. Air Force during and after the Korean War took him across the nation and halfway around the world.

But the Missoula man hasn’t been to Washington, D.C.

That changes this weekend after Riemann, 88, steps on board a commercial flight at the Missoula airport Friday morning with his grandson Mitchell.

Come Saturday they’ll be in the nation’s capital, touring this country’s most moving war memorials with 21 other veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Riemann is part of the national Honor Flight Network’s Lone Eagle program, geared especially for veterans like him who live far from an Honor Flight hub.

Montana used to have a hub in Billings. The Big Sky Honor Flight was established in 2011 and raised nearly $1.5 million to fly World War II veterans, 753 in all, to D.C. in the next three years.

But the number of interested, able-bodied vets from the Greatest Generation dwindled, and raising money for the $150,000 flights became a challenge. The first of nine flights from Montana took place in June 2012. The last one was five years ago, in May 2014.

“We tried to get a Korea Honor Flight going, and I thought we did a fairly good job,” said Bill Kennedy of Billings, a former Yellowstone County commissioner who was vice president of the Big Sky Honor Flight Committee and a leading fundraiser for the project.

“But then all of a sudden we couldn’t get much traction on it and it kind of went by the wayside. There aren’t as many people excited about Korea as they are about World War II.”

Nationwide, the Honor Flight program launched in 2005 is prospering, said Jane Julian, director of Lone Eagle program out of Shreveport, Louisiana.

“We have 134 hubs that cover all or parts of 45 states. Montana is one we don’t,”  Julian said. "At the end of 2018 we had transported 220,000 veterans nationwide, and we've been averaging 20,000 to 22,000 a year."

Honor Flight's mission is not complete until all veterans who want to take part do so, she added.

Riemann said his brother, Darrell, in Springfield, Missouri, tipped him off to the Lone Eagle program. Red will be joined by another Korean War-era veteran, 88-year-old Stanley Antilla of Billings, as the lone Montanans in the group that meets Friday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. They'll travel by bus to a motel in Baltimore. Tour day in the capital is Saturday, the return home on Sunday.

It’s the first of six Lone Eagle flights Julian will conduct this year. Riemann will be among a dozen Korean War veterans, three men from World War II (ages 92, 96 and 97), and seven who served during Vietnam.

Of the latter group, three are flying early on the TLC program. Diagnosed with terminal illnesses, they are moved to the top of the priority list, Julian said. TLC stands for “Their Last Chance.”

“To be honest, most of the terminally ill we see are Vietnam vets because of Agent Orange,” she said, referring to the defoliant used in chemical warfare by U.S. forces in Vietnam.

"We say World War II and Korean veterans want to see their memorials. Vietnam veterans need to. This is very, very cathartic for them. It helps heal a lot of wounds.”

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Service in Tripoli

Riemann never dodged bullets in war time. His overseas assignment was at Wheelus Air Base in Tripoli, Libya, where he spent 18 months working on “anything and everything that hit that runway” as an aircraft electrician, he said. It was a busy place. At one time Wheelus was the largest U.S. military base on foreign soil.

A supply base for the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and ’49, it was an important link in the United States’ Strategic Air Command war operation for use as a bomber, tanker refueling and reconnaissance-fighter base by the time Riemann got there. 

Still, he carries the scars of war. Riemann grew up in Norton County, Kansas, and attended the same Catholic church as his friend Johnny Stenger. They enlisted at the same time and rode the train together to Kansas City for physicals in early 1951.

“I went into the Air Force and ended up in Tripoli, Libya. He went into the Army and came home in a casket,” Riemann said, shaking his head. “If I see his name (in Washington) I would probably break down a little.”

He retired in the mid-1990s from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after three years as a dam engineer at Fort Peck and 22 at Albeni Falls Dam on the Pend Oreille River near Priest River, Idaho.

For many of those years Riemann worked with Willard Doucette, who'd been sent to Korea and now lives in Minneapolis. 

"He went through hell there," Riemann said.  

Riemann served with the Air Force four years, until February 1955. Back home, he worked for 13 years in a steam-driven power plant in Kansas, where he met and married Agnes Revak, a daughter of immigrants from Slovakia.

The family included daughter AnnMarie by the time they got to Priest River. When AnnMarie got a scholarship to the University of Montana, Red and Agnes moved to Florence and later to Linda Vista southwest of Missoula. Agnes died of cancer in 2005.

These days Red lives at the Union Square apartment complex near Community Medical Center, and his daughter is the IT director at the hospital. Her son Mitchell Ballas, a senior at Big Sky High, will be soaking in the memorials in Washington, D.C., with his grandfather and the other veterans this weekend.

Like the other veterans, Riemann pays for nothing, Julian added. Guardians are required and are asked for tax-deductible donations based mostly on the cost of a round-trip commercial airline seat. In Mitchell’s case, flying from Missoula through Salt Lake City, it's $450.

“We have no trouble getting guardians once they find out what this is and have been on one of these trips,” Julian said. “It’s very emotional.”

While World War II vets and terminally ill veterans of any age remain the highest priorities for Honor Flights, Julian said more and more of the three-day tours are dominated by veterans of Korea and, especially, Vietnam.

“A lot of times they don’t know they can apply,” she said.

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian