1,000 support Honor Flight at new DuPage fundraiser
It was inside a 30,000-square-foot hangar at DuPage Airport filled with 1,000 people where two 86-year-old World War II veterans who grew up in the same Chicago neighborhood met Saturday for the first time.
An Honor Flight Chicago fundraiser organized by the DuPage Veterans Foundation brought together Jim Cesareo of Elburn and Pat Angelo of Flossmoor, who served on sister ships during their time in the Navy. The two men were among about 50 World War II veterans honored Saturday for their service.
The inaugural event's goal was to raise $55,000 -- enough to send one Honor Flight full of 100 veterans to Washington, D.C., to tour the National World War II Memorial.
"Our first fundraiser is this one, which is to honor World War II veterans and raise money to give to Honor Flight Chicago," said Richard Jorgensen, a member of the newly formed DuPage Veterans Foundation.
Honor Flight Chicago provides all-expenses paid day trips to Washington, D.C., allowing World War II veterans in their 80s and 90s, like Cesareo and Angelo, to experience the memorial built in honor of those who served and died in the war.
The group has a waiting list of about 1,000 veterans, but the list shouldn't discourage anyone from seeking a flight of their own, President Duane Werth said.
"We'll probably get them all flown this year, so it's really not that long of a waiting list," Werth said. "We need to make sure veterans do get signed up."
Veteran Chuck Scheckel of West Chicago went on an Honor Flight in 2009 and called the experience "wonderful." His sentiment was echoed by other World War II veterans attending Saturday's fundraiser, which featured planes and vehicles from the era, war historians and a performance by the Legacy Girls.
"That Honor Flight was great; I'll never forget it," said 89-year-old veteran Louis Celli of Wheaton.
"It was the most beautiful thing they've ever done for the servicemen," said 93-year-old Louis Licantro of Glen Ellyn, who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor from nearby Hickam Field.
Veterans seem to especially enjoy the final highlight of the Honor Flight day. After flying to the nation's capital, touring the memorial and flying home, Honor Flight participants are greeted by a crowd of hundreds -- including family, friends and active-duty military members in uniform -- who are clapping, cheering and saluting them in an informal welcome-home ceremony.
"It's always a big surprise to the veterans," Werth said about the welcoming crew.
Organizers said they were pleasantly surprised by the crowd that turned out for the fundraiser, which they hope to make an annual event.
The late West Chicago Mayor Mike Kwasman was instrumental in planning the fundraiser, and in his place, deputy Mayor Ruben Pineda asked all in attendance to stand and applaud for one group of people left sitting -- the World War II veterans whom the event was all about.
"People are taking supporting our veterans very seriously today," said Krista Coltrin, assistant marketing director for the city of West Chicago. "People are looking to ... support veterans, and World War II veterans specifically."