'It's the best trip I've ever been on'
The folks at Honor Flight sure know how to treat our military veterans.
Citing statistics showing that about 900 World War II veterans die each day, Honor Flight seeks to treat members of the greatest generation with a special day that is highlighted by visits to the war memorials in Washington, D.C.
A Philadelphia chapter began a year ago, and Sunday marked the third bus trip organized by local volunteers. The day started with a 5 a.m. breakfast at the Dunkin’ Donuts near Welsh and the Boulevard.
A bus departed at 6 a.m. and arrived back about 10 p.m., and the veterans and their “guardian” companions had a full day of meaningful sightseeing and fun.
“It’s the best trip I’ve ever been on,” said Gil Benedict, a U.S. Army veteran from Rhawnhurst who served in the Philippine islands from January 1944 to June 1946. “It’s catered to the older veteran.”
Benedict handled the details for the local bus trip. Three Honor Flight-sponsored buses also left from Delaware County. In all, about 100 veterans made the trip.
Honor Flight volunteer Patrick Carberry stayed with the Philadelphians for 16-plus hours, catering to their every need.
Honor Flight is an Ohio-based non-profit organization formed in May 2005. The organization is run by volunteers and funded by individuals, corporations and fraternal groups. Former U.S. Sens. Bob and Elizabeth Dole are honorary advisers.
Andrew Schiavello of Springfield, Pa., started the Philadelphia chapter. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done, hands down,” he said.
SUPPORT FROM THE SIDELINES
The Honor Flight volunteers like to cite Will Rogers, who said, “We can’t all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they go by.”
There was plenty of clapping on Sunday, as tourists went out of their way to thank the veterans for their service.
Honor Flight made sure the veterans and their guardians were prepared for the long day and had something to do during the bus rides to and from D.C.
Guests watched films focused on the World War II Memorial, military cemeteries and D-Day. They looked at old pictures and editions of Life magazine, and read letters from school children during a special “mail call.” They were given hats, T-shirts, coffee mugs, wheelchairs and sun block spray for the hot day.
Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks kept them nourished. One veteran joked that the only thing missing from the feast was a Lucky Strikes cigarette, a common amenity during wartime.
The excitement was all captured on disposable cameras given to everyone.
“It’s an interesting trip. There’s a heck of an itinerary,” said Bustleton’s Harold Kasloff, treasurer of a local Disabled American Veterans group and an Army veteran of the European Theater in 1944 and ’45.
Honor Flight must have a pretty good reputation among law enforcement agencies. The Philadelphia Police Department provided an escort on southbound I-95 to the Delaware County line.
In D.C. and environs, the United States Park Police escorted the buses on highways and between stops at memorials, dropping off the passengers curbside.
“This is a phenomenal group,” said Norm Dyner, an Army veteran who served during the Korean War era.
Carberry, the Honor Flight volunteer, awarded Dyner a “Purple Heart.” Dyner was taking pictures of the sights when he tumbled off a step, suffering a nasty gash to his left arm.
Jack Barbash won an American flag as the oldest and highest-ranking officer. The 93-year-old from Bustleton is a former Army staff sergeant. He served in the European and Pacific theaters from June 1942 and January 1946.
Barbash is glad he made the trip.
“It’s very nice. I’m enjoying it very much,” he said.
The veterans and their guests made sure to thank the Honor Flight volunteers for going all out for them.
“It’s really nice. I appreciate it,” said Bernie Lertzman, an 86-year-old Army veteran from Castor Gardens who served in Germany during World War II.
The day started with a wreath-laying ceremony and view of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
Next, it was off to the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. There, Rhawnhurst's Mary Ferrer was presented with an American flag and certificate by the museum’s deputy director, Jan Fitzsimmons, a Navy retiree.
Ferrer, 88, served in the Navy as a 2nd Class Petty Officer in 1944, joining her three brothers in service to the country. She was part of WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service).
Ferrer was stationed in New York and entered the service as an artist. Among her duties was producing films that urged American soldiers to stay away from young German and Japanese women.
Ferrer had a great time on Sunday, accompanied by her friend and guardian, Ruth Fisgaer.
“It was well worth it,” she said. “This is the experience of a lifetime. I'm going to remember this day for a long time. It was perfect. It was the whole package. It brings back a lot of memories.”
A real highlight was the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, which features the famous re-creation of soldiers raising an American flag on the island of Iwo Jima during a decisive and ultimately successful battle with the Japanese in early 1945.
The visitors also had a chance to see the World War II, Korean and Vietnam memorials, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
If the long, hot day sapped the energy from the octogenarians, their spirits were surely boosted on the return trip to the community center of Broomall’s St. Luke Greek Orthodox Church.
Motorcyclists and local police and fire departments escorted them to the hall, where they were greeted by dozens of patriotic citizens waving American flags. Even Swoop, the Eagles mascot, joined in the festivities.
The Greater Overbrook String Band performed patriotic music outside, and the Manhattan Dolls trio sung popular tunes from the 1930s and ’40s inside the center, where dinner was served.
The veterans walked on a red carpet through a receiving line into the center, where they were greeted by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah.
“It was a nice day,” said Somerton's Nick Forgione, 90, a Navy veteran who served in the North Atlantic from 1942-44. “It’s good to see this many guys. I can’t believe some of these oldtimers.” ••
How to help . . .
Tax-deductible donations can be sent to Honor Flight Philadelphia, Attn: Andrew Schiavello, 7 Windsor Circle, Springfield, PA 19064.
For more information, visit www.honorflightphiladelphia.org