The Honor Flight is Montana’s way of thanking its World War II veterans for their service. It is a trip extraordinaire, a decades late tribute to our veterans who returned home to work as if their interlude of years was a small feat, without complaint. “I went right back to the farm,” said Belfry resident, Rudy Hergenrider, 86. “A lot of the guys who stayed were ahead of me. They had all the equipment. I was working with horses-the other guys had machines,” he noted. He said attending the flight to Washington was his idea.
“I figured this was my last chance. I thought I’d see a lot of kids. But there were two different buses from Red Lodge.
I didn’t see them.” He was accompanied by his son, retired Air Force Master Sergeant E-7 Leslie Hergenrider. He said the whole trip was “real good” and that service started right at the airport with breakfast set up in the terminal and waiting. There was a meal on the plane and a reception right away as they got off. Even the helpers were crying. Leslie said, “Everything was so accommodating, even the buses and vans. “It was real nice for us,” said Rudy. “There was one real old guy there who couldn’t hear anything. When you’re supposed to stop he didn’t,” he said with a smile. Leslie said his father helped the man. “I was born here,” Rudy explained, gesturing inside his comfortable old farmhouse just outside Belfry. Two apple trees over 100 years old are visible outside the living room window. He had four brothers and five sisters. Five years ago, he lost the sight in his left eye due to a stroke. Miraculously, his sight returned last week. He says, “I like to walk.” He is active around his 1,000 acres although the cattle and chickens are long gone. He and his wife, Mary, married in 1951. They had two girls and two boys. She passed in 1991.
He married his second wife, Clara, in 1996. Rudy didn’t see combat. Instead, he stood guard during the war crimes trials in Manila. He saw the whole thing. “I was there when Hommo and Yamashita were tried.” General Douglas MacArthur as Supreme Commander of Allied Powers in Japan organized the Manila trials. In early 1946, he approved the convictions and hangings of General Tomoyuki Yamashita “The Tiger of Malaya” and “Death March” General Masaharu Homma. They were MacArthur’s chief adversaries. During the Bataan Death March, the Japanese army marched an estimated 72,000 Americans and Filipinos 65 miles to San Fernando, Pampanga.
The US Department of Veteran's Affairs puts the American deaths at 650 and Filipino deaths at 16,500. Rudy was with a team of transcribers that recorded the trials. He brought a copy of the transcripts home. “Years later, oil field dams on my neighbor’s land broke and flooded my land. The transcriptions were destroyed,” he said calmly. “It all took place in the presidential palace,” he said. Rudy wanted to serve overseas. He was stationed in Alabama. “I didn’t like the way they mistreated black people. Especially the old men.”
Although, he added, he saw worse in Chicago. Rudy’s sense of humor is evident when he explained how he was able to get stationed abroad. “The staff sergeant said to us, “If you mess up-you’re going overseas. I said to my men (instead of marching in orderly fashion) ‘to the winds!’” As a result, he was shipped out to the Philippines. Rudy said he stayed in the presidential palace during the trials. It had been badly “shot up” by the Americans. He was there about eighteen months. “I kept everyone quiet. There was a good prosecutor from New York.
They were tried about the (Bataan) death march. They both got hanged.” He said of the survivors, “I’d see a few of them and it makes you cry.” His sense of justice extended to the Japanese Americans interned in America. “They kept German prisoners in Australia like we did the Japanese. But they got their farms back-not in the U.S.” He mentioned that he went to school with some Japanese students in Belfry in 1937. “They all left when the war started. No one returned.” He said some Japanese returned to Powell and wanted to borrow money from the banks but no one would lend to them. Rudy lost his oldest son Allan. He served in the Army and was honorably discharged. He died years later of cancer. He doesn’t know if he saw McArthur but said, “I only saluted generals and there were a lot of them at the trials.”
The Philippines War Crimes Commission which some say was hastily organized by McArthur and predated the Tokyo trials, was composed entirely of five generals, no lawyers. He said the two Japanese generals spoke English well. “They didn’t like Roosevelt.” He said a lot of soldiers didn’t either but he did. “A lot of guys didn’t get to go on this trip,” he reflected. “My brother… My neighbor Al Rudio passed recently but got his Purple Heart before he died.” When his brother died three years ago, he received a surprise memento from the past. “I was friends with three Filipino girls who did the transcribing. One had made a painting and sent it to me. My nephew found it at the bottom of my brother’s duffle bag after he died.” His brother had hidden it. “My nephew delivered it to me three years ago.” He brought out the colorful painting of a woman doing wash by the river dated Feb., 1946. Rudy’s second wife, Clara said, “It was so well organized. Some had family meet them at the banquet.” Rudy feels very blessed. “I started with 80 acres, 40 irrigated. Now, I have over 1,000. I came right home from war and went to work. That’s why this trip was so important.”