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Nygaard overwhelmed by experience

Gene Nygaard and his son, Mark, were part of WDAY's World War II Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., on September 7-8. Words don't seem to be adequate to describe the emotions that Nygaard felt during the once-in-a-lifetime trip. "It's something I will never forget," Nygaard said. "There were a lot of tears shed on the trip," he added.

Nygaard was among 247 World War II veterans from North Dakota, Minnesota, and South Dakota, who flew out of Fargo's Hector Airport early in the morning of Friday, September 8. Accompanying the veterans on the 747 jet were Honor Flight committee members, escorts, medical staff, dignitaries, and media.

Once on board the plane, the veterans were each given a packet of souvenirs and items donated by local businesses, along with a commemorative book containing biographies written by each of the veterans taking part in the Honor Flight tour. Nygaard was overwhelmed by all the kindness shown to their group and impressed with how much planning and work had gone into organizing the trip." Everywhere we went there was always someone asking if we needed anything, making sure those who needed wheelchairs or canes got one, or passing out water bottles to make sure we didn't get dehydrated," Nygaard said. "It was a big undertaking."

In Washington, D.C., the veterans were welcomed at a special banquet in their honor and escorted on bus tours of the national monuments. Within their busy two-day itinerary, they were able to visit President Kennedy's grave, and watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. They also went to Arlington National Cemetery and visited the Vietnam Wall, as well as the Korean Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and the recently constructed World War II Memorial.

During a special ceremony at the World War II Memorial, Nygaard's group was asked to be part of the ceremony, with Nygaard and another veteran assigned to lay wreaths. A former POW was asked to lead in prayers, and another veteran was asked to lead the group as they solemnly recited the Pledge of Allegiance. When it came time to lay the wreaths, there was some confusion. "They didn't have any wreaths, so I lost my job," Nygaard chuckles. Even so, he was extremely honored to be chosen for the task.

The trip had added meaning for Nygaard. In 1999, he and his wife, Aggie, had toured Washington, D.C. While visiting the Capitol grounds, their tour guide had mentioned that every state in the union, except for North Dakota, New Mexico, and Nevada, had two statues honoring notable persons in their state's history housed at the Capitol Rotunda. Nygaard was disturbed to learn that North Dakota was one of three states with only one statue. After returning home, he contacted the North Dakota Historical Society in Bismarck and suggested they put a statue of Sakakawea at the Rotunda. Four years later, that suggestion became a reality and North Dakota now has two statues.

On October 16, 2003, an unveiling ceremony was held in the Capitol Rotunda, recognizing Sakakawea as North Dakota's second state statue in the Nataional Statuary Hall Collection. The statue of the Shoshone Indian girl who traveled with the Lewis and Clark Expedition to Fort Mandan is a replica of the bronze statue of Sakakawea which stands at the Capitol in Bismarck.

During the Honor Flight tour, Congressman Earl Pomeroy arranged for Nygaard and his son to go by taxi to see the statue. One of Pomeroy's aides met them at his office and personally escorted them to the Capitol. Incidentally, the statue collection now consists of 100 statues, with New Mexico and Nevada adding their second statues in 2005. North Dakota's first statue was of John Burke, who served as North Dakota Governor from 1907 to 1913.

Nygaard was drafted in 1944 at the age of 18, straight out of high school.

He claims that when his grandson, Derek Rice, graduated from high school, he asked his grandpa how many cards he got at his graduation. With his typical sense of humor, Nygaard laughed and told Derek that he just got one; his A-1 draft card.

Nygaard chose the Navy over the Army, and he never regretted his choice. He claims he couldn't see himself sleeping in a foxhole. He had six weeks of boot camp in Feragut, Idaho, followed by a six day furlough, and then was sent straight to Treasure Island in San Francisco for Fire Control School, where he test fired guns and ammunition. He ended up aboard an aircraft carrier named the U.S.S. Intrepid, serving in five major battles fought in the Philipines and the Pacific Theater.

Recalling what it was like on board ship, Nygaard says, "We weren't scared.

We just felt we had a job to do. I thought it was kind of fun, until I started to see friends buried at sea. Then it wasn't so fun. When we were at war, I never thought about shooting a Japanese person, I thought about it as shooting down a plane," Nygaard said.

Nygaard was injured on board the U.S.S. Intrepid during battle, when an explosion blew him off the deck. "I went sailing and hit a steel beam or I would have been knocked into the water," he recalls. "I went down to sick bay and was pretty bruised up on one side." He was given a choice of accepting the Purple Heart award, or going back to the ship, but he insisted on going back to his battle station to help his comrades fight. He was finally awarded the Purple Heart about eight years ago.

Gene was one of six brothers in the Nygaard family to serve in the military during wartime. Bill and Gene served in World War II; Charles and John served during the Korean War; and George and Gordon served in Vietnam. Gordon was a member of the Green Beret. Of the six, Gene was the only one to suffer injuries in battle. George died in 1996 from cancer.

Gene's shipmates, who served together on the U.S.S. Intrepid during World War II, have continued to get together once a year for the past 29 years. Gene and Aggie have attended every year. Twenty years ago, their reunion was held in West Fargo with Gene and Aggie serving as hosts. This year, the Nygaards helped organize the reunion, which was held in Branson, Mo.

According to Mark Nygaard, his father never talked about the war very much at home, which made the trip more monumental for Mark. "I could tell that he really enjoyed himself. It was really neat to see all these old war veterans getting together and talking after all these years. I was just blessed to be with my dad on this trip," Mark said.

"When you meet somebody who was over there with you, you can talk for hours," Gene said. "The whole trip was something else. When we got off the plane in Fargo, we were treated like royalty. All the escorts were waving and clapping and thanking us for fighting in World War II. The VFW Color Guard was there, and the Fargo American Legion. A band was playing and everybody was clapping and singing." After pausing and thinking about their festive welcome home, Gene added, "You get treated so special, and you wonder why."

Tracy Briggs, spokesperson for WDAY, who helped organize the Honor Flight, has been very impressed with the veterans. "You always hear stories about what wonderful people these veterans are, and meeting some of them confirmed it for me tenfold. They were generous and gracious and humble. They were very fun to be around," Briggs said.

WDAY WWII Honor Flight is a collaborative project between WDAY, Carlson Wagonlit Travel, and area veterans groups, with funding contributed by the generous donations of corporate sponsors and individuals in the community. The first Honor Flight took 108 veterans to Washington, D.C. on May 3-5. One more Honor Flight is scheduled November 2-3. Over 700 applications have flooded in. Briggs hopes that everyone on the waiting list will have the chance to go.

The Nygaard family wants to give a heartfelt thank you to Tracy Briggs, Scott Hennen, and all of the people who made the trip possible.