The Honor Flight Chicago program has always been about thanking veterans for their war time service. It is about transporting heroes to Washington, D.C., to visit and experience firsthand their memorials.
With words such as "incredible," "meaningful" and "overwhelming," five Lisle WWII veterans describe a trip of a lifetime each will never forget.
A Lisle resident for 30 years now, Franklyn Nipper lived in Akron, Ohio, when he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17.
"Most of the people I served with are long gone, and the Honor Flight trip brought back good memories of these people," Nipper said.
Nipper heard about Honor Flights from a friend in Waterloo, Iowa. He checked around and found the Honor Flight Chicago based at Midway Airport.
"So I applied and it took a few months when they called me and said I was invited," Nipper said.
He took his Honor Flight Chicago on April 4.
"I never experienced anything as well-organized as the Honor Flight," Nipper said. "The amount of work people put in to make everything perfect is fantastic.
"Once you arrive at Midway airport at about 4 a.m., a guardian is assigned to each of us and they follow you through the whole trip and take good care of you," he said. "The average age on our flight was 88 years of age, and I was one of the youngest ones at age 85."
At the airport, a simulated USO show with an Andrew Sisters-like trio called the Legacy Girls grabbed everyone's attention.
"Some of the older guys would hand someone their cane and get up to move to the music when the girls sang 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,'" said Nipper.
At both ends of the trip, lines of people waved flags and cheered for the veterans.
"They were all there thanking us for our service," Nipper said. "I felt like President Obama."
A member of Congress even read a resolution that named the veterans on the trip for the Congressional Record of that day.
Nipper described the location of the WWII Memorial location on the National Mall as "perfect."
"I would say to any WWII veteran who has not gone yet, by all means, do not miss this trip," Nipper said. "It is an experience of a lifetime."
Charles G. Tuma
Years after serving in WWII, Charles G. Tuma, at the age of 88, flew on an Honor Flight Chicago last year.
"In Dulles Washington airport, there were fire trucks with hoses giving a water canon salute sprinkling the plane to greet us," Tuma said. "Everything was so nice and so touching that it made you cry."
Tuma's guardian was a lieutenant colonel who had 27 years in the Army.
"The people could not do enough for you," Tuma said.
Tuma describes the World War II Memorial as "beautiful" and "meaningful."
"It is a memorial to you, and all the thousands and thousands of people who served," Tuma said. "I met two veterans who I remember serving in the same group that I did."
At the age of 17, Tuma enlisted in the Army Air Force and served for three years all over Europe. He flew many air transport commands with dignitaries.
"There would be two planes ready to go, and one would take off and then the other in a different direction, and only one had the dignitaries aboard," Tuma said. "It was all restricted information."
Among the notables Tuma flew the most was President Franklin Roosevelt.
"He was a real nice gentleman," Tuma said. "When we got to a place, 'He'd say, 'Chuck will take care of me,' and I would wheel him around in his wheelchair."
All of Tuma's photos and memories of his Honor Flight are in a large album his daughter put together for him. He proudly shares the book with visitors to his Lisle home.
"I was one of the vets who was concerned about going to Washington, thinking 'Why should I go, I didn't do anything,'" he said. "But no matter what your duty was, you fought in the war, so you should see this memorial. It is the best experience I ever had."
WWII veteran Joseph Ryan flew on an Honor Flight last August at the age of 89.
Ryan heard about the flights from other veterans.
"The whole thing was incredible," Ryan said. "You did a lot of reflecting back. I was pleased we went to the Iwo Jima Memorial, and it grabbed me a little because I knew some of the Marines that were there."
At the WWII Memorial, Ryan was honored to carry a flag and to represent the deceased veterans at the wreath-laying ceremonies. He found the field of 4,048 gold stars poignant because each commemorates 100 Americans who died in the war. The military used a gold star flag that symbolized a family's sacrifice in WWII.
Ryan, who enlisted in the Marines after college at the age of 21, served in the South Pacific.
"My wife and I were both Marines," said Ryan, who carried a photo of his wife on the trip since she passed away two years ago. The Ryans, who were married for more than 60 years, were both from Chicago, but met at a Marine base in San Diego and lived in Naperville 30 years. He now lives in Lisle.
"Everyone was so darn nice on the trip; they treated you like royalty, which most of us feel isn't really necessary," Ryan said. "Everyone went into the service; it was no big deal."
Ryan admits to being tired when he returned home at midnight from the Honor Flight.
"It was a packed-solid and very rewarding day," Ryan said. "If anyone is concerned about going on an Honor Flight, I'd tell them not to worry about a thing. There is a nurse on every bus and as far as I am concerned, it is a marvelous opportunity and very impressive."
At the age of 89, WWII veteran James Carson took the Honor Flight on June 7, 2011, along with one female and 95 male veterans. Carson's helper was a physical therapist and professor from Chicago, who took many of Carson's photos.
Carson regrets that his wife, who died three years ago, did not see the WWII Memorial. She served in the Navy Air Force as a WAVE in WWII.
"For the trip, organizers had a wheelchair for everybody who wanted one," Carson said. "Our shirts were color-coded for function; I had a grey one, which meant I was a veteran. The orange ones were for people who volunteered."
Carson enlisted in the Air Force because math majors had skills the military needed for forecasting weather. He spent four years in the service and came home in an ambulance.
"I was in the Army Air Force serving in the Mediterranean and was part of the Operation Dragoon invasion (of) southern France in 1944," he said.
As a weather officer, the vital job included making weather forecasts and observations for military maneuvers. Sometimes planes were in the air 10 to 12 hours.
"Weather had to be satisfactory because planes needed to see the ground to land," Carson said. "Radar at that time was good for seeing airplanes, but no good for seeing rain, snow and ice."
Aboard the Honor Flight's return trip, Carson said every veteran receives mail in the "mail call."
"Mail call was always a big thing for oversea veterans; even though it could be a month old," the Lisle resident said.
A packet of 20 to 35 letters come from relatives, school children and others such as a school superintendent. Every letter had a similar message for the veterans: "Thank You."
Edward Hausknecht Jr.
The WWII Memorial was very impressive to veteran Edward Hausknecht Jr., who was 85 when he took the Honor Flight from Chicago last year.
"We were kept very busy," he said. "It was very, very rewarding."
The WWII vet explained how each state has its own pillar within the memorial along with other areas that show different battles. It displays the unprecedented unity of the nation during WWII.
"There was a ceremony for us with an honor guard, bag pipes and a couple speakers," Hausknecht said. "It was quite exciting."
Hauknecht served in the Navy aboard the USS Beltrami for almost two years in the South Pacific. The Chicagoan enlisted at the age of 17 so he could be a sailor.
"Being in the military is something you never forget for the rest of your life," Hausknecht said. "At that time, the world was completely different than it is today, and everyone pitched in and helped."
"There were 16 million out of 125 million people in the U.S. that went into the service," he said. "Those not in the service were working in war plants or doing whatever they could to help the cause."
Hausknecht, now a Lisle resident for 20 years, encourages young men to consider the military because it is a good experience and offers life-long skills. He encourages WWII veterans not to miss an Honor Flight.
"The Honor Flight was one of the best days of my life," he said.
Honor Flight Chicago
"Honor Flight Chicago began in 2008 to honor WWII veterans by flying them all expenses-paid to see their memorial in Washington, D.C.," said Mary Pettinato, the volunteer CEO for the organization. "The memorial was built in 2004 when many of these brave men and women were not able to make the trip on their own."
The idea to help veterans experience their own memorial was the impetus to create Honor Flights. Everything is free for veterans thanks to generous donations and fundraising events.
The day-long inspirational and emotional journey includes a visit to the WWII Memorial and others. Honor Flight Chicago has 10 flights scheduled for 2012.
Pettinato said there are 25,000 WWII veterans in the Chicago coverage area and to date, the Honor Flight Chicago has flown more than 3,000 to Washington, D.C.
"Our current need is to identify and recruit the remaining 22,000 WWII Chicago-area veterans who have not had their day of honor," Pettinato said.
For information, go to honorflightchicago.org or call (773) 227-8387. Current applications should be scheduled to fly within 2012, Pettinato said.
Honor Flight Chicago was recognized by the State of Illinois as a Homefront Hero for its patriotism, community spirit and willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty to support our brave troops and their families.