Committed to service: Local veteran Bud McMasters recognized by Honor Flight

A little girl holds a sign that reads, "Thank you for your service," as an eager crowd at Springfield's Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport greeted 79 local veterans with something many never received: a welcome home.

Decorated in red, white and blue, the crowd received 32 Korean War veterans, 44 Vietnam War veterans and three World War II veterans, all of whom boarded the 48th Land of Lincoln Honor Flight Tuesday.

Each year, the nonprofit, which utilizes largely private donations, honors central and mid-southern Illinois Korean War, Vietnam War and World War II veterans by providing an all-expenses paid day trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the national memorials dedicated to the veterans' service. The opportunity often yields the first experience for many veterans to see these memorials.

"The national World War II memorial was made 50 to 60 years after World War II," said Joan Bortolon, president of the Land of Lincoln Honor Flight. "By the time it got completed, many were in their 80s, and they could not make that trip."

Among the honor flight attendees was Farmer City Korean War veteran Clarence "Bud" McMasters, 86, who served in the Army.

A Danville High School graduate, McMasters enlisted in the Army in 1953, but his journey began with reluctance. Passing by his friend's (Paul Duez) house before embarking on his theological studies at Cincinnati Bible Seminary, now Cincinnati Christian University, McMasters stopped at Duez's home, where he saw a recruiter chatting with his pal on his porch.

"He yelled at me and said, 'Come on, let's go. We'll go together.' I said, 'No, I've already paid my tuition and everything else,'" McMasters said.

During his junior year, McMasters received a notice that his friend went missing.

"I went on and that's what haunted me," he said. "I thought, 'If I had been with him, if I had went with him, then maybe he wouldn't have been killed.'"

Stationed in Gelnhausen, Germany for three years, McMasters recalled the elements of day-to-day life during the war.

"We spent a lot of time out in the field," he said. "I was in the medical corps, so most of the time, I did inspections on barracks and stuff like that when I wasn't out in the field. When I was out in the field, then I had to do the same thing because a lot of the guys would get hurt and some of them froze, not dead, but it was just so cold."

His time in the field typically involved what McMasters referred to as an old Army saying, "hurry up and wait."

"That's all we did was wait for things," McMasters joked. "I had no idea, but then later on we'd finally find out why we were waiting."

Sometimes experiencing temperatures around minus 20 degrees, he and fellow soldiers would stand guard in the elements.

"We would go to the Czechoslovakian border, and the Russians would come in and mass on the boarder," he said, "and we'd get on one side and we'd look at each other — it was just intimidation. We had to dig foxholes and sleep out in that weather in a tent, and we did that almost every month."

After the war, the Danville High School graduate purchased a 1949 Pontiac, met his soon-to-be wife, Lil, at a Steak 'n Shake, got married and had three children. The couple will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary next year, but the pair's relationship wasn't an instant thrill for Lil's parents.

"She was 16 years old," McMasters said. "The first time I took her home, mom slammed the door in my face and didn't want me to come back. For a long time during those two years (before marriage), I couldn't come to the house."

On Lil's 18th birthday, Bud McMasters drove to the front of her house at midnight to pick her up.

"The town cop was there because she (Lil's mother) called and they couldn't do anything because I wasn't on her property, see I was out in the middle of the street," he said as he laughed. "I picked her up and we got home and I took her to my foster folks and then we got married that weekend."

It wasn't until the couple bore their first child a year later that Lil's mother finally warmed to their relationship.

McMasters' life after the war was dedicated to ministry. He and Lil served as house parents at Cookson Hills, a children housing ministry in Kansas, Okla., where the pair were responsible for the well-being of approximately a dozen children, including their own children.

"They were on the wrong path, especially these kids," McMasters said. "This was primitive and it taught the kids trades. One house of 12 might be responsible for cutting down trees, another house would be responsible for the mechanics of keeping the cars running and another would be responsible for the clothing that came in from the churches."

While on vacation near home, the pair visited St. Joseph, where they bumped into a couple from Cookson Hills who moved to serve the St. Joseph Children's Christian Home. The couple informed the McMasters of a vacancy and slowly talked them into moving from Oklahoma to St. Joseph.

Entering into a new world, the McMasters prepared to serve a new set of troubled youths.

"These kids didn't want us," Bud McMasters recalled. "Their mom and dad were on drugs. Another set of kids, three sisters, their mom drove them to LeRoy, opened the door and pushed them out and drove away."

Eventually, the children began to enjoy the couple. So much so that when they recently returned to Homer, where Bud McMasters used to preach, he found many of the children, now adults with their own families, filling the pews and offering to throw a 60th wedding anniversary celebration for the pair.

"It was so exciting," Lil McMasters said.

After serving as house parents, the two took on pulpit ministry at several area churches, such as Hoopeston, Farmer City, among others, creating Cowboy Churches, a Western-style ministry where individuals worship with country gospel music songs, such as "I'll Fly Away" or "I Saw the Light," with a brief message in between the worship sets.

"It got really big," McMasters said.

His passion for music dates back to his Army days when he created company tunes, such as "C1's Little Heroes," which even ended with the company's captain joining in song.

Now a chaplain for the local VFW in Farmer City, the Army veteran often picks up his guitar to visit his friends who are residents of the Farmer City Rehab and Health Care Center.

"I love country music," he said. "I still play at the nursing home just to entertain the residents. At our age, we don't play as well, but they don't care."

Eagerly awaiting the Honor Flight, McMasters was thrilled when the coach buses drove the veterans under the cherry blossoms and magnolia trees he so desperately wished to see.

"They were beautiful," he said. "I got a couple of pictures of them. That's one of the things I had hoped for."

Touring the war memorials and Arlington National Cemetery, among other sites, McMasters was escorted by guardian Don Burke of Forsyth. Each veteran was assigned a guardian who ensured their safety and well-being throughout the day.

"That guardian is there to share the day and that experience with that hero, too," Bortolon said. "It doesn't get much better than that."

Burke, who decided to become a guardian as a way to give back, found the trip to be a rewarding experience.

"I had several friends and family that have been in the service," Burke said. "I was not in the service and I felt like it was my turn to give back to those who have been in the services, especially during the wars, and I thought it would be a privilege for me to do that."

Chiming the same emotional note with McMasters in agreeance of the best part of the journey, the two described the welcome home greeting as "overwhelming."

"The airport was full of people welcoming those servicemen home," Burke said. "It was just eye-opening again realizing that we really haven't thanked them enough after spending the day with them."

McMasters was delighted to see how many young children were in attendance with signage in hand to thank the veterans.

"They ran up to us and hugged us. We never expected that greeting. It felt so good. These kids were genuine and I loved every minute of it," he said. "That sounds like that shouldn't have been the highlight as much as I enjoyed the trip," he added. "I never in a thousand years thought that so many people would show up to welcome us back. You felt appreciated."

McMasters knew all too well the rejection his fellow veterans faced many years ago when they returned home from war.

"I still to this day feel so sorry for the Vietnam vets and what they went through and what they experienced coming back home. People were spitting on them as if it were their fault," he said. "It was nice to see those vets there along with the rest of us finally getting some good recognition and appreciation for what they've been through."

At the end of the trip, McMasters, along with the other veterans, received letters thanking him for his service. Burke and McMasters put a poster together highlighting Bud McMasters' journey. The poster contained an image of a church, for his ministry, a Steak 'n Shake, where he and his wife met, and the signatures of people saying thank you.

"I gave him another poster that was blank with no writing on it, and I told him to take it back to Farmer City and have his friends and family sign it and tell him thank you," Burke said. "He may be too humble to do that."

Elated with the experience, McMasters walked away with a full, appreciative heart.

"It was so nice that someone thought to do this," he said. "They really had to go out of their way to allow this to take place and allow us to do this. I appreciate that. A lot of people put a lot of work and time to make us happy and they did."

The next Land of Lincoln Honor Flight is scheduled for May 15. For more information about the nonprofit organization, check out its Facebook page or visit landoflincolnhonorflight.org.

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