Saturday, July 4, 2015

One last mission for World War II vets

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.

     Nor can you hear one of the Union boys in blue describe the night before Gettsyburg.   Their faces stare at us from tintype photos, forever mute.
     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.      

     Aurelio Sanchez enlisted in the Marines at age 17—his grandmother signed the papers. He was with his son Rick, a retired Chicago police officer, who prodded his father for years to go on the flight. At the Air Force Memorial—there were also visits to the Lincoln, the Korean and Vietnam war memorials—the younger Sanchez gently laid a hand on his father's shoulder and explained how he seldom spoke of the war. But over the years the son had learned that Sanchez turned 18 on Iowa Jima, after landing in the second wave at one of the most brutal battles of the Pacific war.
     "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
Aurelio Sanchez
them, so they had protection," said Rick Sanchez. "To get underneath the dead guys on the beach. Right dad?" 

     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."

Bill Copeland
      Thoughts kept returning to those who weren't there. Bill Copeland held a well-worn newspaper photograph of kindergarteners, including himself and his wife-to-be, 87 years ago. They were married 67 years. She died last year.
     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 or phone 773-227-VETS (8387).

George Ukropen at Montrose Cemetery. 


  1. A perfect column for the 4th. Glad you went, Mr. Steinberg-it's a great thing for the vets.

    I'm honored to share a birthday with this nation and it's perfect for my line of work as a former History Teacher.

  2. This brought tears to my eyes. Such a great program; over 90% of its expenditures are on the services it provides.

  3. What a wonderful program. It will be a sad day when there are none left to honor anymore.

    And sorry to trivialize the subject with pedantry, but: " Miss Lake-in-the-Hills, wearing a tiara spreading out across two levels of the terminal." That's a hell of a tiara; I wonder how she gets it though a doorway?

  4. I'm thankful for the ability of the human brain to harbor opposing viewpoints, as I admire the sacrifice of Steve Ukropen, even though it ineluctably brings to mind Yossarian's famous reply to the question of what would happen if everyone tried to avoid Catch 22.

    That's also why I like the book "A Subaltern on the Somme," in which the author clearly admires the courage and tenacity of his fellow soldiers while decrying the idiocy and waste of the war itself.

    e at the same time thinking of Yossarian's attitude

    1. A lot of great literature which both celebrated the courage of soldiers and decried the incredible waste came out of WW I. "The Great War and Modern Memory," by Paul Fussell covers the subject wonderfully.

      A favorite quote about life (and death) at the front is attributed to Earnest Theisiger, a gay and rather swishy actor who, had served courageously and was badly wounded. When asked what it was like in the trenches he replied, "My dear. The noise! And the peeeple!"

      Tom Evans

    2. Tate, your comment reminds me of the, All Quiet on the Western Front, book.

  5. What a fantastic tribute and the homecoming after great as well!

    I hope the Vietnam vets receive the same treatment when their turn comes. They missed out after their contributions to that war were ignored on their return home.

    1. My understanding is that the program is expanding to include Korea and Vietnam veterans, but WW II vets are the current priority.

  6. My father, a Korean vet, was asked to attend the Honor flight, from a director in the Sr. home. Either she was confused or they did expand to Korea a couple of years back. He was unable to go but my father in law a WWII vet made it a few years back.

    1. The Honor Flights -- and I couldn't get into this in the story -- have something like 133 chapters. Some are very small, and already include Korean vets. Chicago's is much larger, and will start doing that, I believe, next year.

  7. Dr. Johnson once observed, "Every man must think meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or having gone to sea." It's doubtful that such attitudes prevail now because WW II was the last occasion when massive armies and vast air armadas faced each other, and was also the last time any substantial number of Americans citizens were called on to fight. But we still do honor our veterans, and rightly so.

    When President Nixon announced during the 1968 Presidential campaign that he planned to end the draft, opponents of the policy change predicted that soldiers who enlisted for largely "mercenary" reasons wouldn't fight very well and also would not be supported by the public when they became veterans. Neither turned out to be the case, so I would predict that veterans of even our most recent conflicts will be given Honor Flights when the time comes.

    Although we Americans consider ourselves "exceptional," and therefore don't need to consider other peoples, it would also appropriate on these patriotic holidays to count our blessings in matters of war. Terrible as WW II was for us it was much worse for others. We lost a little over 400,00 killed, but the Soviets lost more than half a million at Stalingrad alone. The British lost almost as many in combat as we did, but the Luftwaffe also killed another eighty to a hundred thousand civilians. Writing as an historian, Winston Churchill observed, correctly, that "the wars of the peoples turned out to be much worse than the wars of the Kings."

    Tom Evans

    1. Yes, luckily here we didn't have to run & hide from falling bombs at all hours and wonder if your house would be standing when we returned, as many in Europe and Asia did (unless you were near Pearl Harbor)

  8. My father-in-law went on an Honor Flight in Colorado several years ago. It wasn't nearly as big a deal there as it was in Chicago, and Dale, too, didn't think he should go. But Dale, too, got a huge mental lift from it! World War II was miserable! I'm happy that we can, at least, try to recognize and thank!


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