|Navy Corpsman Mason Hadeen greets vet Milton Merklin Tuesday at Dulles Airport while Silvio Morales, right, looks on. Carol Channel, in the background, drove down from Staten Island to help out Honor Flight Chicago.|
Today is the 4th of July, and while the focus is on the founding of our nation, the Revolutionary War soldiers are no longer around. World War II veterans are, and when Honor Flight Chicago invited me to accompany 88 veterans to Washington on Tuesday, I looked at the itinerary—show up at Midway at 4 a.m., get home at 8 p.m., maybe—swallowed hard and said yes.
You cannot mark the 4th of July by shaking the hand of a Massachusetts minuteman and thanking him for grabbing his musket and rushing to face the British redcoats at the birth of our nation. We're lucky to know their names.
But the third great life-or-death crisis to face our country, World War II, is recent enough, barely, that the last living links who fought are with us, still, and they will tell you, if you ask.
Just don't expect high flown speeches.
"We didn't volunteer, we got drafted," said Pete Dybowski, an Army sergeant in the Philippines leading a .50 caliber machine gun squad. "I was just glad to get home."
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, 400,000 died during the war. Another 14.5 million or so passed away over the past 70 years. A million yet survive, and 88 from the Chicago area flew to Washington and returned Tuesday, courtesy of Honor Flight Chicago, an extraordinary program that thanks World War II vets with a day-tour of our nation's capital and its World War II Memorial, which many have never seen.
It was a day of handshakes and hugs. As they did in service, thoughts of the vets were often with loved waiting at home. Jim Celebron, 94, recalled getting married on a three-day pass, despite the logistical challenge of a bride, Rosie, in Chicago, and an army base in Louisiana.
"Then I never saw her again for nine months," he said. "Seventy-three years later, she's still my wife"
The day started with vets checking in at 4 a.m. at Midway Airport, being greeted by a platoon of orange-shirted volunteers, given coffee and donuts entertained by an Andrews Sisters tribute act, then flown to D.C. where they were met by active duty personnel—young soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen—plus other volunteers, a green-shirted team from Freddie Mac, a white gloved lady from the Virginia Daughters of the American Revolution.
"It's an honor to meet some of these great people," said Sgt. Edgar Clark, 27, from the security battalion at Quantico.
Each vet was accompanied by a "guardian," who volunteered to push their wheelchair for the long day, mostly relatives or military personnel. They boarded five buses, and were sped around the capital, blowing red lights, escorted by a D.C. motorcycle cop, sirens blaring.
The vets on the flight were ages 85 to 99. If you do the math, an 85 year old World War II vet had to enlist at 15, which was not unusual. In that pre-computer era, would-be soldiers would lie. The youngest World War II combat vet, Calvin Graham, was wounded at the Battle of Guadalcanal, serving as a loader on a 40 mm anti-aircraft gun on a Navy battleship. He was 12.
"How bad was it, dad, on Iwo?" Sanchez asked.
"Real bad," his father replied.
"He told me, when he got to the island, they were told to put the dead guys on top of
On Iwo Jima, Sanchez could feel the Japanese bullets striking the bodies atop him, his buddies protecting him, even in death.
"The Japs had planned for a couple of years," said Sanchez, 89, who went on to work at a steel plant. "So when the Americans went in, the Japs were ready. But that didn't make the American Marines run away. Some of them were falling dead, and we kept calling, 'forward, forward, forward.'"
They battled for days without sleep.
"They'd come at night, try to sneak in," said the elder Sanchez. "But the Marines were waiting. We'd let 'em come into the trap then open up on 'em."
He shook his head, his face grim, desolate as that rocky island.
"Lot of young guys," he said. "Seventeen, 18, 19, 20. Lot of young guys. Never come home."
Why did he bring the photo?
"I carry it everywhere," he said.
George Ukropen's older brother Steve almost kept him from going. When Honor Flight Chicago contacted him, he initially refused to take the trip. His brother Steve was the hero, he insisted, not him. Could Steve go then? No. Steve Ukropen, a tail gunner on a B-17, had died over France in 1943. Finally George was persuaded to go, in his honor. The Honor Flight Chicago staff provided a flag in a triangular frame with Steve Ukropen's photo, and George carried held to his chest at the ceremony at the World War II memorial, where taps was played.
After a visit to the new Air and Space Museum at Dulles, the vets were put on a plane home, where they had mail call—fat envelopes filled with letters of gratitude, from school children, from athletes, from President Obama. The organization, forethought, good cheer, effort and attention to detail shown by Honor Flight Chicago cannot be overstated. This was their 65th flight.
Ukropen expected "maybe 50" people would meet them at the airport when they came home.
Instead, an astounding welcome beginning with fire fighters at attention on the tarmac by the gate. Inside, an honor guard of 200 sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Station, in formation, continuing through a line of veteran motorcycle club members bearing American flags, a police band, a brass band, and countless family members, Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, plus Miss Lake-in-the-Hills, wearing a tiara, masses of people spreading out across two levels of the terminal. Perhaps 3,000 total, a vast cheering, hugging, clapping throng.
A little girl gave Ukropen a small American flag.
"For a guy like me, I was overwhelmed," he said the next day. "I couldn't believe that, when I saw all those people, over a thousand or two thousand people, kids, shaking my hand. It really was one of the most touching things in my whole life. I will never, never forget yesterday, and how they treated me, how they take care of me."
Thursday the took that flag to Montrose Cemetery to visit his brother's grave.
He placed the flag before the headstone.
"This thing yesterday brought this all back to me," he said. "I don't feel like I really deserve all these things, although I did serve. I drove an armored car. We went on patrols, but never really ran into too much problems. I don't think I really did anything: I read these signs, they were for my brother, He knew it was a danger, him going over. They had no protection at all, couldn't go real high. They'd still send the bombers and the Germans just shot them down with flak. He knew that. He said planes ain't coming back. He still did that. You want to talk about doing something for his country."
Ukropen said he is going to bring the letters he received to the cemetery to read aloud.
"I can't help but feel they were really meant for my brother," he said.
Honor Flight Chicago has three more trips scheduled this year. There is no charge for the vets, and those who served in World War II are invited to apply. Go to their website www.honorflightchicago.org or phone 773-227-VETS (8387).