Local WWII vets travel to D.C. on the Honor Flight

Photo By Alexandrea Dahlstrom                                                                                                                                                Constance Cruthers (from left), Gerry Pelishek’s niece of Wisconsin Dells, Gerry Pelishek, Jeff Senglaub of Oconomowoc, Homer Cary, Otto Probst and Deb Senglaub stand at the Wisconsin pillar at the World War II Memorial. Cruthers and the Senglaubs were guardians on the trip to a veteran.

By Alexandrea Dahlstrom

SLN Staff

As Gerry Pelishek and Otto Probst stood in front of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Nov. 3, they contemplated the immensity of such a memorial for their World War II comrades.

“If they were to name all the American soldiers who were lost in World War II, it would be about seven times as long,” said Pelishek, 85, a U.S. Navy veteran.

Pelishek, Probst, 92, a former Navy medic, and Army veteran Homer Cary, 89, all of Darien, were among more than 200 WWII veterans who took a day trip to Washington, D.C. through the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight.

Also on the trip were Glenn Smiley, 88, of Delavan, Richard Carlson, 84, the former owner of Carlson Plumbing in Delavan, and Lee Hoeft, of Fontana, who at 83 years old was the youngest veteran on the flight.

Honor Flight treats WWII veterans to a day in the nation’s capital to honor their service to the United States.

Veterans are invited to join the flight free of charge and each is assigned a “guardian” who ensures his comfort at all times whether it be pushing a wheelchair or getting a cup of coffee.

At 92 years old, Probst refused a wheelchair and said his age doesn’t mean he has to be old.

“If I get in a wheelchair I’m just going to sit and melt away,” he said.

Red carpet treatment

The veterans gathered at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee at 4:30 a.m. the day of the flight, where they checked in and were given a distinctive jacket and boarding pass. At the airport, the veterans were paired with their guardians before taking off to Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Also on board were two doctors, Honor Flight officials and volunteers and members of the media.

Photo by Alexandrea Dahlstrom
From left, Guardian Jeff Senglaub assists Homer Cary through the Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. as a large crowd welcomes their arrival. A local Daisy Troop made signs and handed out pictures to the ar-riving veterans.

At Dulles, the two Boeing 757s were welcomed with a “water cannon” salute from the District of Columbia Fire Department, and the veterans were greeted by several organizations, members of the media, schoolchildren and residents of Virginia.

The crowd cheered and gave the veterans notes and cards as they walked through the airport to board the deluxe coach buses. People who greeted the veterans said they were “honored to be in their company” and repeatedly thanked them for their service.

Police escorted the buses through traffic and stoplights so the veterans could make their destinations without delay.

Gathering of heroes

The first stop for the veterans was the World War II Memorial.

“This is just amazing,” said Probst, who walked around the memorial with Pelishek and Cary to reflect on their emotions about the war. “A lot of memories –fond memories mostly.”

The memorial sits between the Washington and Lincoln monuments in the National Mall, where Probst ran into another veteran who served in the same outfit in Burma as he did.

“This is just great,” Pelishek said. “The memorial was just spectacular in beauty.”

The veterans gathered for a group picture in front of the memorial where passers-by and visitors stopped to photograph the gathering of heroes.

Sen. Robert “Bob” Dole was at the memorial to greet the veterans, shake their hands and thank them for their service. Dole, also a WWII veteran, was an active voice and supporter of the memorial.

The next stops for the veterans were the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

Pelishek said he was struck by the simple, yet impressive, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, which many of the veterans visited even though it was the farthest walk in the Constitution Gardens.

“Though the wall was black granite and the names were just block letters, the significance was very emotional,” he said. “Just as Otto and I were trying to calculate how many names could possibly be on this wall, a volunteer tour guide came up because she overheard us. She said there were more than 58,000 names of soldiers killed, including 1,200 more missing in action.”

Pelishek said had he been born about 20 years later, he would have signed up or been drafted to go to war in Vietnam just like he did for WWII. He said he believes Vietnam veterans need new recognition and is excited at the thought of them having an Honor Flight of their own.

“The enormity of this war, you just can’t fluff over,” Pelishek said. “But I can’t help but feel guilty in that when we returned home, we were revered as heroes and the Vietnam vets were spit on.”

Active duty

Veterans on the trip swapped stories of their times during the war.

In the war, Pelishek was trained as an officer and in the B-5 training program. He said shortly after he was on active duty, the atomic bombs were dropped over Okinawa and Hiroshima. Pelishek remembers how that event changed the course of the war. The Navy no longer needed to train him as a pilot, so he was moved to the landing craft – the USS Hughes and then to the Bikini Bomb Test.

“The Bikini Bomb Test was not named for the swimsuit, but the swimsuit after the test. After the test, there was nothing left of Bikini Island, much like the swimsuit,” Pelishek said. Pelishek remembers being disappointed as an 18-year-old “kid” because he was transferred before the bomb dropped – something he is now grateful for as an adult.

“Many thought radiation could be washed away with soap and water,” he said. “Obviously we know this is not the case and many suffered as a result of the Bikini Bomb.”

Probst recalls his days as a medic.

“I spent a lot of time in Burma and China during the war. I assisted surgeons in a lot of amputations and treating wounded soldiers,” he said.

Among the fallen

After visiting the veterans’ memorials, the former soldiers boarded their buses for another police escort to the Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Arlington officials said the tomb represents soldiers who have fallen and never been identified.

The tomb is considered a sacred place and is guarded by 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment. The Old Guard has kept watch over the tomb 24 hours a day, seven days a week since 1937, said tour guide and Honor Flight volunteer Renee Riddle.

The guards are called sentinels and guard the tomb as a ceremonial event but will confront anyone who is disrespectful or speaks too loudly. A changing of the guard takes place every hour in the winter and every half an hour in the summer, Riddle said, and respect must be shown at all times.

“You have to remain standing and silent at all times. These guards follow a strict code of conduct and go through rigorous training to obtain this honor,” Riddle said.

The 624-acre Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 14,000 veterans.

“I was hugely impressed by the cemetery,” Probst said. “The number of stones and markers seemed to just keep going. The changing of the guard was great. A great honor to witness.”

Probst said the precision in the walking from changing of the guard brought back memories.

“It made me think of when we were first in training and new recruits joined. They didn’t always start off on the correct foot. If one person started off on the right and the other on their left, they would trip,” he said, with a chuckle.

The veterans finished their day with more touring by bus in the city and a last trip to the Iwo Jima Memorial – the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial.

Welcome home

On the plane ride home, the Honor Flight did a “mail call,” distributing letters and pictures from friends, family, politicians and schoolchildren to the veterans.

“I got letters from people I’ve known for years and letters from little kids. It was something, and I get emotional thinking about it,” Pelishek said.

About 16 hours after leaving Milwaukee, the veterans arrived back at Mitchell International where they were welcomed home by more than 6,000 friends, family and supporters.

As each veteran departed the plane, he or she was greeted by saluting military officers. Bagpipers played patriotic music as the veterans made their way through a roped-off parade route that led to the gathering of supporters.

Once the veterans reached the crowd, supporters erupted in chants and cheers. The veterans’ guardians walked them through the parade to their friends and families, many of who carried signs and T-shirts with their veteran’s military photos on them.

“The emotion was so heartfelt,” Pelishek said, “You could feel it from everyone that was there. Young, old – it didn’t matter. You could tell they were expressing deep emotions, and that was very touching.”

One Comment

  1. Thank you to all the VETS!!!! What a great honor for these men.