Navy veteran experiences Honor Flight
By Kevin O’Brien
Retired Naval sonographer Ron Gebert may not have been on the front lines of the Vietnam War, but he sure remembers the backlash he felt when he returned home from tours of duty in the 1960s.
The first time was in 1966, when he arrived in Seattle, Wash., after a stint at a U.S. Naval facility in Adak, Alaska, where he tracked Russian ships and submarines during the height of the Cold War. Gebert and others were warned about encountering hostile protestors.
“They told you ‘Don’t leave the airport in your uniform. Go to the nearest bathroom and change into civvies,’” he says, referring to civilian clothes. “They were marching against military personnel.”
Gebert, who lives in the Dorchester area, got a much different homecoming reception last week as one of 111 military veterans who traveled to Washington, D.C. on Oct. 21 as part of the 38th Never Forgotten Honor Flight. The daylong trip to the nation’s capital is provided free of charge so veterans can see the memorials built in their honor.
After spending much of the mid-1960s in remote locations, keeping an eye on enemy vessels, Gebert said he never really got a welcome home celebration when he returned to life in central Wisconsin.
In fact, that negative experience in Seattle was repeated several years later when he flew into New York after a little over a year serving in Bermuda, helping to make sure the East Coast was safe from Russian warships. Once again, he was urged to sneak out of the airport.
“How does that make you feel when you’re fighting for your country?” he said. “That’s what this Honor Flight is all about, to make us feel welcome again.”
Gebert praised the “fantastic group” of volunteers who organized the trips, and members of the public who show edup at the Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee — and in D.C. — to make the veterans feel appreciated.
“When you come off the flight, there’s people there welcoming you,” he said. “It’s just an awesome experience.”
A Dorchester native, Gebert graduated from Columbus Catholic High School in 1963 after his family moved to Marshfi eld. In January of 1964, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
When asked why he chose that branch of the military, he said it had something to do with his father and brothers, who were all in the military as well. “I had brothers in the Army and a brother in the Air Force and nobody was in the Navy, so I thought I’d try something different,” he says, laughing. Gebert said he nearly ended up in the U.S. Marines, which were apparently in short supply when he signed up for service. He recalls standing at the end of a line of new recruits, several of whom were picked to be Marines.
At boot camp in San Diego, he said he remembers feeling thankful to be in the Navy, as he could hear how much rougher it was for the Marine recruits on the other side of the fence from his base.
“You could hear them screaming and hollering over there,” he said.
Gebert’s basic training consisted of a lot of technical education, starting with the anti-submarine warfare school he attended in San Diego. After learning the basics of the electronic equipment used to track enemy movements at sea, he went on to sonar school in Key West, Fla., where he also studied oceanography.
“What I ended up doing was tracking ships and submarines with underwater systems,” he said.
Most of his training was done on land, but Gebert did spend some time out at sea, where he learned what it’s like to be without steady ground under your feet.
“A lot of the guys who went out at the same time I did got sick; they couldn’t handle it,” he said. “I handled it, but I enjoyed the shore duty better.”
With just a couple months’ training, Gebert learned how to read low-frequency sounds captured by hydrophone technology.
“It was all top-secret up until the late ‘90s,” he said. “It’s like an array of microphones out in the water, where it picks up all the sounds and transmits them into frequencies.”
Upon completion of his training, Gebert was first assigned to a base in Eugene, Ore., where he used his newly acquired skills to track ships and subs coming from the USSR.
After that, he went up to Alaska, way out on the chain of Aleutian Islands, to track Russian marine activity coming out of ports in the Bering Sea.
Although Gebert’s unit was primarily involved in land-based operations, he said their work involved occasional aerial trips out into the ocean.
“Sometimes, when we didn’t recognize the frequencies of a certain ship, we’d fly out and see what it really was,” he said.
Gebert vividly recalls going out on one of those flights and wondering if he’d make it back to the base safely.
“When we landed, it took him three tries to get it on the ground,” he said. “It was so windy up there — and gusty.”
“I told the captain when I got back: ‘The next plane I’m getting on is the one going home,’” he says, laughing. “It didn’t end up that way, but it sounded good at the time.”
Gebert left active duty in April of 1968, came back to Wisconsin and started working in construction. He went on to own and operate his own satellite business for 30 years.
He describes his time in the Navy as “a good educational experience.”
“I feel like everybody should serve at least two years,” he said, referring to military service.
The Honor Flight was not his first experience in Washington. In 1983, he went to D.C. with a group led by state Sen. Dave Zien, a Marine veteran, when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall was first dedicated.
This time around, though, he said volunteer escorts did a “phenomenal” job of allowing them to see as many of the national monuments as possible within a matter of hours.
“Seeing all the memorials really makes you think about how many men and women have died through these wars,” he said. “It’s unbelievable, and we even talk about war today after all that.”
A few of those who gave their lives in Vietnam were classmates and friends of Gebert, so it was important for him to see their names etched on The Wall.
Besides seeing the memorials, he said a highlight of the trip is the camaraderie among veterans, who get a chance to share stories with each other.
He also appreciated the “mail call” tradition carried out on the plane, with veterans receiving thank-you letters and cards from schoolchildren and other members of the public.
The grand finale of the experience is the arrival back at the Central Wisconsin Airport at Mosinee, where crowds of people gather to clap, cheer and shake the veterans’ hands. That comes after a similar sendoff ceremony before they leave and a reception at the airport in Washington.
“It’s a really moving experience,” he said. “Many people come out to welcome you home.”
Among those gathered to greet him was his wife, Patricia. His daughter, Shir- ley, was at his side for the entire trip as a volunteer “guardian” for him and another veteran.
“She had been there before, but she really enjoyed seeing everything,” he said. “She also enjoyed helping other veterans.”
Gebert urges any veteran who is reluctant to go on an Honor Flight to take the trip. For those with medical concerns, he said there are doctors on board the airplane and wheelchairs available for those with mobility issues.
“They take care of the veterans,” he said. “They really do a good job.”
The Honor Flight trip packs a lot of activity into a single day — from touring the memorials to seeing the Marines Corps putting on a silent march.
“We saw a lot in a short period of time,” he said. “I tell you what, when we got back I was exhausted. I truly was.”