It would be easy to glance at this group of men in their 80s and 90s, with lined faces and gray hair, and not recognize whom you are looking at.
They’re modest, so they probably won’t mention their past, and despite their matching Honor Flight baseball caps and T-shirts, each one seems to have more in common with the younger person at his side than with each other.
Then William “Bill” Hauck of Sanborn, a slender 90-year-old, looks out the window of the Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 as it takes off for Baltimore and says calmly, “Today is the first day I ever flew in a plane without wearing a parachute.”
This snaps them into focus: As young men, some teenagers, Hauck and the other 24 veterans on this Honor Flight trip vanquished evil. They defeated the Nazis, halted tyranny in its tracks, liberated the concentration camps. Along the way, they were wounded, they saw buddies die, they endured grueling hardship. They stormed beaches in the face of withering enemy fire. They fought on blood-soaked islands and learned shorthand for their searing memories: Pearl, Iwo, the Bulge.
After the war was won, the men quietly resumed their lives. They became family men and wage-earners. Years passed, and age began to hang its inexorable burdens on them: bad knees, high blood pressure, heart problems, cancer. The soldier, sailor or Marine in each one receded until he became difficult to see in photos of those young guys in uniform with those rakish smiles.
But this day is different. As dawn breaks, Bill Hauck observes with a small smile that he needed the flimsy silk parachute strapped to his back on all his other flights in case he had to bail out over the South Pacific. Suddenly, the men’s heroism becomes apparent. And on this day, finally, having the upper hand in the battle over age and infirmity, and with help from their guardians and Honor Flight Buffalo, they will get to see the World War II monument in Washington, D.C. – their monument – built too late for most of their comrades.
They don’t know it yet, but they will never forget this day. By the end of it, tears will fill the eyes of these old military men, and they won’t be alone.
The Buffalo hub of Honor Flight, founded in 2009 by Lisa and Jo-Anne Wylie and Charles “Dan” Dunkle, has its roots in heartbreak. The Wylie sisters’ father, Army Air Corps Staff Sgt. Robert P. Wylie, was a charter member of the World War II Memorial Society, which planned the construction of a memorial to veterans of the war that had ended some 50 years earlier.
Political wrangling over the location, size and design of the memorial delayed its construction until 2001; it was finally dedicated in 2004 – the year Robert Wylie entered a nursing home.
Lisa Wylie says, “I sat and watched the dedication on TV with him, and I said to him, ‘I’m going to get you there one day.’ If there was an Honor Flight, I think I could have gotten him there with that help, because he didn’t pass away until 2006. That was the one regret that Jo-Anne and I had that we didn’t do for my father.”
In 2008, the sisters volunteered to act as guardians for two veterans on a one-time Honor Flight organized at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station after some lobbying by World War II veteran Harry Kuligowski. When they and Dunkle learned that there was no official hub in this area and more than 200 veterans on a waiting list, “we incorporated and it just took off,” says Lisa Wylie. Dunkle later left the group, and the board has added the sisters’ aunt, Dorothy Wylie Keough, Lucia L. Scarpino and Deborah Watkins. The Buffalo group is one of 114 official hubs of the Honor Flight network, which was started in 2005 by Earl Morse, a retired Air Force captain in Ohio who took 12 World War II veterans to see the memorial.
Since then, Honor Flights have taken more than 82,000 veterans to Washington; the Buffalo hub has transported 265 veterans since its first flight on June 5, 2010. On that trip, the sisters brought their father’s photo and the folded flag that had covered his casket to the memorial.
Wylie’s photo also is displayed at the orientation sessions held two weeks before each flight. This particular group, the 10th of Honor Flight Buffalo, gathers in late September at the Thomas E. Tehan American Legion Post 1449 in Blasdell. The event is scheduled to start at 10 a.m., but the first veteran arrives at 8:30 a.m. The board and volunteers know about this generational habit, and have the doors open.
The place is packed. Veterans and their guardians – an able-bodied companion, either a friend, relative or volunteer – are given T-shirts (white for veterans, red for guardians) and matching Honor Flight caps.
One volunteer guardian is Air Force Reserve Master Sgt. Lisa Sveda, who wears her uniform as she sits with Milton Miller, 87, of Amherst. Miller was a prisoner of war, captured at Anzio and held for “10 months and 29 days,” he says with a wry smile. “It’s just wonderful to have these guys be recognized,” says Miller’s daughter, Cindy Telesz.
At another table, Orlando Giombini, 90, an Army veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, sits with friend Jeffrey McCaskey, who will be his guardian. “As I get older, things are more and more difficult to do,” says Giombini. “But I’d like to see the [World War II] memorial.” Daniel Misner, 86, of North Tonawanda, sits with friend William Myers, who will be his guardian. Both were Navy Seabees.
The men are introduced, to applause. The last to be introduced are brothers Alvin Windnagle, 88, of Cheektowaga and Roy Windnagle, 87, of East Amherst, escorted by their sons.
The veterans return to their families for pizza and cake, and the guardians are called up for a safety briefing. “I don’t ever want to see a veteran standing alone,” Lisa Wylie says. The guardians have paid $375 each for the trip; spouses may not be guardians due to Honor Flight rules. Veterans pay nothing. On this trip, the veterans will be accompanied by six daughters, 10 sons, a nephew, a niece, a son-in-law, three friends and three assigned guardians. “Safety first,” they are told.
It’s cool and still dark outside on Oct. 13 when veterans, guardians, friends, airport officials and Honor Flight volunteers gather on the top level of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. After a few remarks, a moving flag-folding ceremony led by Sveda, and goodbyes, the group files toward security, where the veterans take the VIP lane.
At the gate, Jo-Anne Wylie plays patriotic music and tunes that were popular during the men’s youth. In the jetway, Urban Englert, 87, of East Amherst, introduces his son, Paul Englert, the youngest of his 11 children. George Trautman, 87, of Tonawanda, a Seabee, shows photos of himself at age 18 with residents of a remote South Pacific island called Espiritu Santo.
As the plane prepares to take off, Hauck’s daughter and guardian, Susan Wasiewicz, says, “I wanted to take him to see the memorial for his 90th birthday, which was in April, but it would have been much more costly and the arrangements would have been all on me. He would have enjoyed the experience, but it wouldn’t have been the same.”
There’s an excited buzz as the plane taxis, and heads turn toward the east, where the red sky shows an imminent sunrise. As breakfast bags are handed out, Thomas Richards, 89, a Navy gunner’s mate, peers out the window. “When I was in the Navy, I used to take the 4 [a.m.] shift for this reason,” he says. “You got the beauty of all the sunrises over the ocean, and the water would sparkle just like diamonds.”
The short flight to Baltimore Washington International Airport is smooth. As the plane nears the gate, an airport fire truck welcomes the group with a jet from a water cannon. The veterans are surprised to see a crowd of smiling people holding up flags and applauding at the end of the jetway. A dozen Annapolis midshipmen form a line, shaking hands with every veteran.
At the end of the line, a barrel-chested man named Joe Short, wearing the lime green T-shirt of the Baltimore Honor Flight ground crew, sneaks a look at every vet’s ID tag and calls him by name: “Big Joe! Welcome to Baltimore! Nelson, my man! Good to see you!” Short says, “Ninety percent of these men were never welcomed home and greeted this way.”
At the end of the line, Rozanne Maison hugs each man, including Donald Holdaway of Tonawanda and Nelson Stephan of Alden, both 89. In the terminal, the midshipmen start conversations with their older counterparts. “My dad really enjoyed talking to one of the cadets,” guardian Edward Knab says. Albert Knab, 86, was a ball turret gunner and radio operator with the 8th Air Force.
Downstairs, a dozen members of the Baltimore Washington International Airport Brownies motorcycle group welcome the veterans and prepare to escort the bus to the Washington mall. John Jefferson, originally from Kennedy in Chautauqua County, has lived in the Washington area for 24 years, but tries to always greet the flights from Buffalo.
On the bus, a documentary poignantly narrated by Tim Russert tells the story of the memorial. By the time it was dedicated, just a quarter of those who served during the war were still alive. Finally, the bus parks. The moment so many didn’t live to see is here for these men.
The gleaming granite memorial glitters in the bright sun. A large central Rainbow Pool with dancing fountains is flanked by two arched pavilions that symbolize the theaters of battle, marked “Atlantic” and “Pacific.” Curved edges of the fountains are inscribed with the names of key battles. The states, territories and the District of Columbia are each represented by a pillar. Particularly moving is a wall of 4,000 gold stars – each symbolizing 100 lives lost during the war.
The group gathers for a photo with the Honor Flight Buffalo banner, Alvin Windnagle holding a vintage newspaper with the headline: “PEACE.”
Then it is time to explore. Paul Davis, 85, who served in Germany, heads toward the Atlantic pavilion, as does Orlando Giombini. “I am looking for the names of different places that I was familiar with or where I served,” Giombini says. “It was such a long war, and there were so many different countries involved that you wonder how they were going to put together a memorial that would include the vastness of the war, but they did a good job.”
Arthur Higgins, 87, of Amherst, with his nephew, Daniel Kautz, stops next to the inscription “Iwo Jima.” Higgins was 19 when he landed on Red Beach 2 with the 5th Marine Division. As he gazes at the memorial, three 13-year-old home-schooled cousins walk up. “Thank you for your service,” says Kyle Montgomery of Wisconsin solemnly, shaking Higgins’ hand. When the teens are told that Higgins was at Iwo Jima, Kyle, David Zimmerman from Minnesota and Jacob Woodford from Colorado – who have learned about the battle – respond with awe, “You were?!”
Roy Windnagle, who served with the Marines in Guadalcanal and China, looks at the names of islands. “We lost a lot of men in some of these islands,” he says. “But it was a real privilege to serve. It’s a great country, and I’d fight for it again if I had to.”
Milton Miller meets up with his son, Doug Miller, who moved to Washington a few weeks earlier. The two chat and explore the memorial together. After some walking, some picture-taking, and some moments gazing at the grand memorial, the men begin to make their way back to the bus. Nobody lingers.
A bag lunch is handed out while the bus travels the streets of Washington, with the driver pointing out landmarks before stopping near the Korean, Vietnam and Lincoln memorials. The Lincoln Memorial is across a long plaza, so most of the group goes directly to the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Here, larger-than-life stainless steel statues of soldiers, shrouded in capes against the biting cold, walk on patrol, their faces drawn. The men are reflected in a polished black granite panel inscribed with vintage photos of troops.
“Their faces look so ghostly,” says George Trautman, walking with guardian Anne Miller.
They proceed in silence toward the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. The memorial begins gradually, as a low, black granite wall. Inscribed with the names of more than 58,000 fallen troops, the wall steadily rises and becomes more imposing.
Walking with guardian Jessica Koss, Edward “Peppy” Petrocy, 92, of East Aurora, becomes reflective. “This is a shame,” he says. “I can imagine some parent coming down here and seeing their son’s name.” He shakes his head. “This one is sad. Well, they all are.” Two middle-aged women stop Petrocy, shake his hand and say, “Thank you for your service!” He replies, “Thank you for remembering!”
Back on the bus on the way to Arlington National Cemetery, where the group will see the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Lisa and Jo-Anne Wylie talk about the most-decorated American war hero, Buffalo native Lt. Col. Matt Urban, who surpassed the better-known Audie Murphy. Urban was wounded seven times and received many awards, including the Medal of Honor.
In Arlington, Walter Scott, 92, a Navy veteran of the Pacific Theater, turns to his son, Timothy, a Vietnam veteran, and says, “Freedom isn’t free. Look at all those crosses.” Leonard Nowicki, 83, of Cheektowaga, who guarded Japanese war criminals as a young Marine, walks with his daughter, Kathy Serksnis, who came from California to share this trip with her father.
The group gathers at the plaza next to the white marble tomb inscribed, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” The guard, in one of the most difficult and exacting roles in the military, paces the mat alongside the tomb in 21 measured, precise steps, pauses for 21 seconds – references to the highest military honor, a 21-gun salute – then turns and repeats the walk. The group watches in silent reverence as the new guard arrives and starts his watch.
Most of the group chooses to stay on the bus while a half-dozen or so get off to see the massive Marine Corps War Memorial, depicting the famous flag-raising on Iwo Jima. One who visits the memorial is Arthur Higgins, who shakes the hand of Marine Cpl. Ronald Picard, who has been standing with the Tennessee Honor Flight group. Asked about Picard’s sharp uniform, Higgins says, “We never had dress blues, they didn’t issue those in wartime. Most of the time we just wore sweaters, khakis and T-shirts.”
On the way to dinner at the Golden Corral, Andrew Cerza, 91, of Amherst, who is accompanied by his daughter, Colleen Tripi, admits that the day has been a challenge for him, but he perks up when he’s asked about his service. He tried to join the Marines when he was 16, he says, but “They told me, ‘Come down the day you turn 18.’ ” He did, and went on to serve in the Gilbert Islands, American Samoa and China.
The most impressive part of the trip, Cerza says, is “all the people saying thank you.”
Back at the airport security screening, Gino Nichele, 89, of Lewiston, with son Gino Nichele Jr., says, “I never liked lines. That’s how I wound up in the Marines. All my friends went down to enlist. I was in line and I was getting restless. A guy came up to me and said, ‘If you don’t want to wait in line to go into the Army, come with me!’ I wound up in the Marines. A week later I was on the train to boot camp.”
Gino Nichele Jr. listens and smiles. “I have heard some new stories today,” he says.
At the gate, it’s mail call. Every veteran gets a bundle of letters, some from schoolchildren, some from loved ones. Edward Friel, 86, of Clarence, who served on destroyer escorts in the Navy, says he got mail from his siblings and friends. Any from girls? “Of course!” he shoots back. “I was in the Navy!”
Tom Richards says he received “very little mail” in the Pacific. “Mother and Dad had no idea where I was. We weren’t allowed to write home much, and when we were, we couldn’t say much about what we were doing.”
On the plane, Bill Fuhrer, 89, of Erie, Pa., says he flew 32 missions as a waistgunner on a B-17, as well as three “chow missions” to supply besieged areas. “We loaded up the bomb bay with boxes of food and dropped it in Holland,” says Fuhrer. “We could see the people waving up to us. In Amsterdam, one box fell into a canal and a young fella dove right in to get it without hesitating. That food was life for them.”
The memorial visit, Fuhrer says, was “beautiful. You couldn’t ask for anything more.” But there’s more coming, and the men can’t imagine it.
The flight in Buffalo is greeted by a lineup of Airport Fire Department apparatus spraying a festive stream of water. Once in the terminal, the veterans make their way toward the doors, where they expect to meet their families.
Hundreds of people have filled the area, holding signs, posters, flags and balloons. As they see the first Honor Flight vets, the crowd bursts into applause, and the veterans stop in astonishment. Each man’s arrival renews the roar. In his wheelchair pushed by daughter Heidi Salva, Joseph Feraldi, 90, of Chaffee, lights up.
More than 40 uniformed cadets from the Western New York Maritime Charter School salute; Patriot Guard Riders, holding flags, do the same.
The men are nearly overwhelmed. “I couldn’t get over that welcome,” says Michael Gluc, 90, of West Seneca, an Army veteran who was escorted by his daughter, Patricia Brice. “When we turned the corner and I saw the people standing there, oh my gosh. It kept getting bigger and bigger.”
Army veteran Arthur Hann, 90, of Boston is surrounded by nearly 20 people from the Boston Fire Company who have turned out to welcome their fellow member home.
“I thought a few members of my family would be there to meet me, but this was overwhelming,” says Albert Knab, who is greeted by a dozen family members. “It’s something I will never forget.”
“I lost it,” says Walter Scott. “I choked up in Baltimore, when we were saluted by the midshipmen, because I was Navy and I know what a salute means, a sign of respect and admiration. But I couldn’t hold it back in Buffalo. I kind of looked around to see if I were the only one, and I didn’t see a dry eye in the bunch.”
The Wylie sisters gather the group for one last talk, and then the old soldiers, sailors and Marines separate.
“It’s wonderful what they are doing, their compassion and interest,” says Albin Mazur, 88, of Tonawanda, an Army veteran. “I really appreciated going on a trip like that. I wish we could direct some of that attention to the troops who are serving right now.”
Mazur’s guardian, his niece, Margaret “Marge” Witkowski, says, “When I was on that trip, several times I wanted to go to the back of the bus and have a good cry, because of everybody who stopped and said, ‘Thank you for your service.’ ”
At the airport, she says, “I knew some family members were coming, and as we were walking there were more and more and more, and then those kids from the Maritime Academy – I can’t even talk to you now about it without tearing up. It was really something to see, and now I have put my application in to be a volunteer. I have to keep doing this. It was so gratifying.”