BY ANDRE SALLES
By now, you're probably familiar with Honor Flight Chicago and our series, "A Flight to Remember." Basically, Honor Flight finds local World War II veterans and gives them a free trip to Washington, D.C. to see their memorial. And we're going along with them.
Starting at 2 a.m. Wednesday, I'll be live-blogging the trip, from Aurora to Midway Airport to Washington and back. But you won't just have to read my thoughts - I'll be sitting next to some of the most interesting people you could ever hope to meet. About 60 of them, in fact. And I'll be listening as they reminisce about their military service and their lives after the war. I promise you some great stories.
Our ace photographer Heather Eidson will also be bringing you images of the trip throughout the day. We're also launching our new A Flight to Remember Web site on Wednesday, where you'll be able to read our stories and watch our videos over the next few days. It promises to be an emotional journey, and I hope you come along.
Yeah, that's right, 2 a.m. It's been quite some time since I've been up this early. I gave up caffeine in January - we'll see how long I stick to that resolution today...
I'm writing this from my home in Geneva, and I'm just about to step out the door. On the front page of today's Beacon News (landing shortly on driveways everywhere) you'll find a story I wrote about Honor Flight Chicago's maiden voyage to Washington, on June 11. I talked to vets and guardians (usually friends and relatives of the veterans, who pay their own way and volunteer their time), and one thing I heard over and over about the trip was this: it's a long, exhausting day.
Our day begins at the home of Aurora Navy veteran Richard Williams. (His birth certificate says Stanley, but he never uses it.) Richard is going on the flight, and we're going to film him getting ready, saying goodbye to his wife, and going to the airport. Richard's also legally blind, so we've agreed to drive him to Piper's Banquets in Aurora, where a City of Aurora-chartered bus will take him and other local veterans to Midway Airport.
I'm traveling light - a laptop, a notebook, and three pens. I hope to come back with a treasure trove of stories, impressions and experiences. It's going to be a long, exhausting day (and I'm 34 - imagine how it will be for the 90-year-old veterans!), but I'm excited. And as soon as I post this, I'm off.
We're on the bus now, headed to Midway. The City of Aurora chartered a luxury bus for the trip, and about 20 Aurora area veterans took advantage of it. I'm here with most of the guys I've met over the last few weeks - Merritt King, Jim Taff, Don Thompson, Lawrence Black, Gil Dumdie. Sen. Bob Mitchler is here too.
At about 2:30 a.m., we arrived at Richard Williams' house, and met his wife Christine and his dog Buttons. Richard says he's not one for sitting around and telling stories, but he's already given us a couple of amazing ones. The theme for the morning was miracles, and Richard related tales of soldiers dodging bullets, and surviving the impossible. One man he told us about took a bullet to the head, but that bullet bounced around inside his helmet, tearing up the lining and leaving not a single scratch on the soldier's head.
"Miracles can happen," he said, and I've heard other people say that through the years, but few I believe more than Richard Wiliams. Miracles can happen.
Richard's eyesight is all but gone - he leans in close to read signs, and though he has a talent for calligraphy and art, he can't see well enough to use that talent anymore. But he writes poetry, still. And he's written one for this trip, which he's kindly allowed me to publish here:
HONORING THE HONOR FLIGHT PEOPLE
It goes without saying we're glad we're alive
To witness this Honor Flight gesture for vets
To see how a volunteer effort can thrive
A reach-out-and-touch trip that no one forgets
No way may a "thank you" be adequate here
No way may we show how grateful we feel
Conversely, we'd like to give you a big cheer
For making A Day to Remember so real
There's a huge gap between thought and the deed
The work that goes in to all this is immense
We're grateful you recognized merit and need
But here you have done it without recompense
So give yourselves credit, look on it with pride
We hope we can give you a moment to share
But more to the point, we must wisely confide
We're humbled to find there are people who care
This photo by staff photographer Heather Eidson was taken moments after Richard Williams gave the above poem to Mary Pettinato, Honor Flight Chicago vice president (back to camera), prior to departing from Midway Airport:
We're in the plane now, flying just above 10,000 feet. But it's not just any plane - Southwest Airlines has secured Illinois One, the brand-new 737 with the awe-inspiring eagle painted on it. It's been a long morning already, but so far, I'm impressed with Honor Flight's attention to detail, and genuine concern for the safety of these veterans.
We arrived at the airport at around 4:30 a.m., and were greeted by volunteers with signs, who spared no time in thanking our local vets for their service. The Honor Flight folks were incredibly well-organized in the terminal, and each veteran was assigned a guardian to walk and talk with. These guardians have been fully trained, and they know how to anticipate the needs of these vets.
As we all made it through security and trundled down to the gate, we were met by a huge contingent of volunteers and military personnel, all there to wish our veterans well. And it was incredible - they walked out, met people, took pictures, and above all, expressed overwhelming gratitude.
I saw one young soldier walk up to one of our veterans and say, "We wouldn't be here today if it weren't for you," and though he tried to hide it, the old vet's face showed a flash of pride for a second. That was nice to see.
Only one veteran, Amos Nicholson of Aurora, showed up in his full uniform. He came decked out in medals, and completed the look with his original-issue hat. (The medals, as well as Nicholson's pacemaker, caused a brief flurry of concern at the security gate, but all was well within moments.) Many wondered how he could still fit into his old uniform, and Nicholson just laughed.
So far, it's been a sincere and moving tribute to our local veterans, and we haven't even arrived in D.C. yet.
HEATHER EIDSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Volunteers and passengers cheer as they land at Dulles International Airport Wednesday for the Honor Flight Chicago trip that takes World War II veterans to the Washington D.C. memorial.
Our arrival into Dulles International Airport was something else.
First, the Honor Flight folks arranged for two fire trucks, one on either side of the plane, to give us a water cannon salute as we rolled into the gate. The reaction was wonderful. Seriously, an entire airplane full of 80 to 90-year-old men oohing and aahing, then erupting into spontaneous applause.
Then, as the veterans walked into the terminal, a crowd - literally, a crowd - of volunteers cheered for them, waved flags and thanked them for their service. The look of pride and gratitude on the faces of these veterans is something I won't forget any time soon. Everyone I've talked to is having an incredible time.
Here's a good example - Lawrence Black of Oswego. Last time I saw him, more than a week ago, Larry was very emotional, especially when he thought about this trip. He cried, repeatedly, when talking about his time in the service, and about his hopes for his visit to the memorial. I worried that he would be too overcome with emotion to enjoy himself.
I was so wrong. Larry's having the time of his life, grinning from ear to ear as he gets a free ride in his wheelchair. He's downright chatty, talking with his fellow vets and reminiscing, and even though the best he will say is, "This is pretty good," he's clearly loving every minute.
We're in a bus now headed to the memorial. More soon.
2:00 P.M. (Eastern time)
HEATHER EIDSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Lawrence Black, of Oswego, sees the World War II memorial for the first time Wednesday moments before a flag ceremony held at the Washington D.C. monument. Black and fellow WWII veterans from the Chicagoland area visited the memorial as part of Honor Flight Chicago.
We've just boarded the bus after touring the World War II memorial, and I'm still taking it all in.
You could say the memorial is massive and overwhelming, but that would be understating the case by a wide margin. It's huge - it takes up an enormous piece of the mall between the Lincoln and Washington memorials, and its centerpiece is a gorgeous fountain, water arcing into a shimmering pool. There are two stone arches, one on either side, representing the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, and 56 stone columns, one for each of the 50 states and six territories of the U.S.
It was a sight to see, even from a distance, and just amazing once you walk inside it. I gave myself about 10 minutes to just stare in open-mouthed astonishment at the grandeur of the whole thing, before reminding myself that I was there to watch our veterans watching the monument.
And they had many different reactions to it. Some sat down and absorbed it from one spot, some roamed and read all the inscriptions. Some told me they were thinking about their fallen brothers, while some just enjoyed the chance to see such a magnificent monument. Senator Bob Dole and Rep. Bill Foster stopped by to meet veterans and pose for pictures, and our local guys enjoyed that immensely.
"Three months ago, I never dreamt I'd get to see this," said Raymond Janus of Aurora, a sentiment I heard echoed over and over again. James Taff of St. Charles said that his ailing wife encouraged him to go on this trip - it was the family's economic situation, worsened by her illness, that had kept him from making the journey on his own.
We're on the way to the Iwo Jima Memorial now, and though we're all exhausted - especially the older veterans among us - we're all elated. For me, getting to see the monument was wonderful, but getting to see the looks on these veterans' faces as they saw the memorial was magical.
2:30 P.M. (Eastern time)
HEATHER EIDSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Gordon Schnulle of Elgin waits at Dulles International Airport for the bus that will take him and his fellow veterans to the World War II memorial as part of Honor Flight Chicago.
Speaking of magical, I just saw something that will stay with me forever.
In the shadow of the Iwo Jima Memorial, which is in itself just an incredible thing, Elgin Marine Gordon Schnulle just read a list of the 18 servicemen from his hometown that landed on that beach, a number that includes Schnulle himself. All but three are gone now. When he finished the list, honoring each man in turn, Schnulle dumped out a box of sand from the actual beach at Iwo Jima, sand which he personally collected while he was there.
It was a moving, impromptu ceremony, one man's attempt to honor his fallen bretheren, and it was met with tears, hugs, salutes and cries of "Hoo-rah!" from the Marines present. What an amazing thing to witness. Just amazing.
5:45 P.M. (Eastern time)
We're on a bus heading back to the airport now, after taking a whirlwind tour of Washington, D.C. After leaving the Iwo Jima memorial, we drove past several landmarks, including the White House, the Pentagon, the National Archives and the Smithsonian Museum. When we finally stopped, it was to see the Lincoln, Korean War and Vietnam War memorials.
During that brief stay, we followed Richard Williams to the Lincoln Memorial. Before taking the trip to D.C., Richard had promised himself he would climb the steps and see Lincoln. I asked him why it was so important to him, and he whipped out a quotation attributed to Lincoln, one he lives by:
"I do the very best I know how - the very best I can; and mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference."
After scaling Lincoln (which Richard said was much easier than he anticipated), we wandered back and joined the group at an outdoor café. We sat near a group of other vets, including Bernard Edelman of Lincolnshire, who started telling stories. Edelman was a prisoner of war for more than two years, shuttling back and forth between German POW camps before being liberated by the Russians, and his tales were fascinating.
And before long, Richard joined in with stories of his own. And I just sat back and listened to these wise men, who have seen more than I will ever see, and who love their country in ways so much deeper than I can begin to understand. As much as I enjoyed seeing the memorials and walking around the city, listening to these stories may have been the highlight of my day.
The sun is setting now over Washington, and the day is pretty much done. We're all tired, worn out and sore. But you won't hear a single complaint, you won't see a single face without a smile. But there are still a few more surprises in store for our veterans (I know about them, but have been sworn to secrecy). It's been a wonderful, emotional, moving day, and it's not over quite yet.
10:45 P.M. (Back on Central time)
I am, right now, speechless.
I mean, I'm not actually speechless, because I'm going to find some words right now, but "speechless" is a good word to sum up how I feel. I'm on a bus right now, heading back to Aurora from Midway Airport with a bunch of very happy, justifiably proud veterans who just received the most breathtaking welcome home party of their lives.
For weeks, the Honor Flight folks have been asking for volunteers to come and greet the veterans on their way off the plane. They got a few hundred, waving signs and banners and flags, with various family members mixed in. And these people mobbed the arrivals gate, and filled the baggage claim area, just to thank our local vets for their service.
If that had been all, it still would have been moving, but the Honor Flighters weren't done. An Army color guard stood in formation near the gate, saluting as the veterans walked through. (And most saluted back.) And in the baggage area, a drum corps played while another color guard formed a tunnel with flags, and people shouted welcomes and thanks.
You should have seen the looks on the faces of our old soldiers. No one expected a welcome quite like this, and there were tears and smiles and hugs all around. It was an unbelievable emotional high, a surprise capper to an extraordinary day. I heard so many veterans say how honored and grateful they were, how this welcome home will stay with them.
They didn't forget us, these veterans said. They remembered, and they appreciated. And as many of them said, they'll never be able to adequately describe how much that means.
And I heard, time and time again, what a feat of logistics the whole day was. There are still some things I can't tell you about, things I've sworn to keep secret. But everything was incredibly well-planned, and went off without a hiccup. The generosity on display was astonishing - the guardians paid their own way for today's trip, and took every measure to make sure the veterans had everything they needed. The vets paid for nothing, and got memories they will treasure for years to come.
I am worn out, physically and emotionally. It was a draining day, in the best possible sense of the word. But I'm also excited to see the photos we took, watch the videos we shot, and start working out how to tell this amazing story. Keep checking our Web site throughout the weekend, as we roll out our stories and videos.
I want to extend one final thank you to the Honor Flight Chicago team, and especially to our local veterans, who shared their stories and their thoughts with us today. We hope to do you proud.