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'I cried most of the time': WWII vet Jim Dorrance takes the Honor Flight to Washington D.C.

U.S. Merchant Marine WWII veteran James "Jim" Dorrance, pictured here in front of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., had never been to the nation's capital before the Honor Flight tour there earlier this week. Submitted photo1 / 5
Dorrance, who has few surviving close friends or family around, was pleasantly surprised to receive a big stack of cards and letters as part of the Honor Flight program. The show of support meant a lot to him. Submitted photo2 / 5
Dorrance gives the "thumbs up" in Washington, D.C. His friends and caregivers at Ecumen describe him as an affable and appreciative man. Submitted photo3 / 5
Dorrance said his "eyes had a couple of trickles" at many points along the trip. Seeing the war memorials brought up a lot of memories and emotions for the WWII vet. Submitted photo4 / 5
Dorrance, right, and his main caregiver (and escort for the Honor Flight tour) Josh Wolf, pose for a picture at Ecumen with all of Dorrance's cards and souvenirs from the trip. Dorrance said Wolf is "like a son to him." One of his main goals for the trip was to buy a souvenir for all of his caregivers at Ecumen, many of whom he considers family. Marie Johnson / Tribune5 / 5

Jim Dorrance went through six months of extra-intensive physical therapy to be able to go on the local Honor Flight's most recent tour.

The U.S. Merchant Marine World War II veteran knew he was being pushed to do more than usual in therapy — he could feel the added strain in his arms — but in all those months, he never knew the secret reason behind it.

His friends at Ecumen Nursing Home in Detroit Lakes planned it that way. They wanted to surprise him. When they finally revealed their true intentions, Dorrance couldn't have been more delighted.

Before going through the extra therapy, Dorrance had been told he wouldn't be able to take part in the Honor Flight because he was physically unable to walk onto the airplane — a requirement for the vets that are selected. At 92 years old and with an amputated leg, Dorrance requires a wheelchair full-time other than for very brief transitions.

He had really been looking forward to the trip and was devastated to receive this bad news. His caregivers at Ecumen — many of whom he calls his "nieces" and "nephews" because they're like family to him — couldn't stand to see Dorrance's disappointment. They knew if they could get him to be just a little bit more mobile, he'd be able to get on that plane and could go on the Honor Flight.

So they sprang into action, on the sly. Not only did Dorrance start undergoing extra physical therapy, but his main caregiver at Ecumen (and future escort for the Honor Flight), certified nursing assistant Josh Wolf, started working out extra hard, too. He spent six months strengthening his upper body, and went through two months of training, to master a difficult type of lift that he knew would help get Dorrance onto the plane.

In the end, all the effort was well worth it. Dorrance got to go on the tour, after all — and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience he'll never forget.

"The trip was wonderful; it was great," he said with tears in his eyes. "I can't say enough for it. I enjoyed every minute of it — even the long hours."

The two-day tour whisked Dorrance and more than 80 other Red River Valley area veterans away to Washington, D.C. last Sunday morning, taking them to several war memorials, monuments and other sites before holding a banquet in their honor that night and then flying them back home Monday evening after another full day of sightseeing.

The veterans, their escorts and a number of volunteers with the Veterans Honor Flight of North Dakota/Minnesota organization traveled through the nation's capital via multiple charter busses, and the caravan was given a police escort from stop to stop, sometimes holding up all other traffic and even traveling down the wrong side of the freeway in order to arrive at their destinations on time and with honor.

Tears were a common phenomenon for Dorrance, who found himself getting emotional throughout the whole trip.

"I just can't get over it; I cried most of the time," he recalled. "It brought a lot of memories back — about things I saw and heard and tried to do, but couldn't do..."

Dorrance tried to enlist in the Air Force, Navy and just about every other branch of the military during the war, wanting desperately to fight for his country, but he was turned away because of his amputated leg. His left leg was removed when he was 9 years old, due to a life-threatening tumor.

"The other branches wouldn't take me, but I could be a Seaman," he said of his decision to join the Merchant Marines. "They wouldn't let me fight, but I could do other jobs."

In 1944 and '45, Dorrance helped run supplies to and from the troops fighting in the war. He worked on tugboats—"pushing ships around, painting, scrubbing decks" etc.—and also ferryboats, as an assistant cook.

The Merchant Marine were civilian volunteers who sailed with the Navy Armed Guard. These often unsung heroes contributed greatly to the Allied victory of WWII. Their ships were primary targets, as the enemy sought to cut off supply lines, and they died in numbers that rivaled or even exceeded any branch of the uniformed military.

"We were just a bunch of guys who wanted to get in but couldn't," said Dorrance. "Some of our ships went down with the whole crew."

Dorrance had "wanted to get in" since the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was living in Perham with his grandmother at the time, and was out cutting trees in the woods the day of the attack. He remembers coming in for supper that evening and his grandma telling him, "We're at war with Japan." He responded by cutting extra wood for the rest of the winter to make sure his grandma would be well-stocked, because, as he told her, "I won't be here next year."

The following fall, he left for California, where he eventually went through training for the Merchant Marines.

When people would make ignorant assumptions about Dorrance's abilities, or call him hurtful names, that would only motivate him more. Such was the case with his father-in-law. Dorrance's wife, Florence, loved and accepted her husband for who he was, but her father called him a "cripple" and believed he'd never be able to provide for Florence.

Dorrance showed him otherwise. After the service, he became a welder at Ware Manufacturing in Minneapolis, which provided a good, stable income for 35 years. He built his wife a nice new home in the suburbs, making her the first person in her large family to ever have their own new home.

After retiring from welding, Dorrance and his wife moved back to their hometown area, settling in Detroit Lakes and doing a fair amount of traveling.Florence passed away in 2007 after several years at Ecumen, and Dorrance moved to the nursing home himself after a bad bout of pneumonia. As the years have gone by, he's lost a lot of friends and family, but the Honor Flight has shown him that he's not alone.He was also blown away by the hero's reception for the veterans at Hector International Airport in Fargo. A crowd of 300-some cheering fans were there to welcome the group home, as the Red River Valley Veterans Band played patriotic songs.

"Oh gosh, you couldn't believe it," Dorrance said, shaking his head. "I never did anything great in all my life, but I still got all the honors. I couldn't believe it."

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 4-year-old son and toddler daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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