By John Rice
"It's the most emotional thing I've ever seen," WW II paratrooper Larry Miller said of the reception at Midway Airport when the 85 members of his Honor Flight returned from Washington, DC. The flight had taken him and fellow Forest Park vet Bob Maroney on a whirlwind trip to the nation's capitol.
Larry and Bob have been living blocks apart for decades but never met, even when they were at Hines VA at the same time. In fact, they had both been scheduled to go on the October Honor Flight but had to cancel due to illness. Larry recently suffered a setback and was told to stay in bed. "I made up my mind to go even if I was having trouble breathing."
On April 17, they arrived at Midway at 3:30 a.m., with their guardian, Bob's niece, Sue Maroney. Each vet was issued a gray polo shirt bearing the Honor Flight logo. They also enjoyed coffee and donuts, while singers in 1940's finery performed WW II era songs.
Honor Flight paid more than $50,000 for the Southwest Airlines plane that accommodated the vets, their guardians, and a medical team. After all, the average age of the vets was 89. They landed in sunshine at Dulles Airport, where fire trucks saluted them with water cannons. Larry and Bob were capable of walking but all Honor Flight members were issued wheelchairs. These were loaded into coach buses for their sight-seeing tour.
Bob and Larry had been to Washington many times on business but had never seen the monuments. They first rode past the huge expanse of Arlington National Cemetery. The immensity of the WW II Memorial, where a color guard performed, also amazed them. Later, they were dwarfed by the Iwo Jima Memorial honoring the Marines. The Korean War Memorial, Bob recalled, "Looked like guys spread out in a field."
They were served no less than three meals in Washington. Girl Scouts gave them cookies and they were treated to an ice cream social. The group visited the Viet Nam Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. At the National Air and Space Museum, they saw the Enola Gay, whose payload hastened the end of the war. "It was so gratifying," Bob said, "It would normally take 3-4 days to see what we saw." The vets didn't know the best was yet to come.
Flying back through heavy rain and lightning, they were surprised with sacks of mail from family, friends and schoolchildren. Thanks in part to Sue's efforts; Bob received 150 letters at "Mail Call."
Landing at Midway three hours late did nothing to discourage the mass of civilians and sailors who lined the terminal to thank them. Four military bands, representing the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard serenaded them. It was particularly poignant when they played "Taps."
"That rips you up," Larry said, "There wasn't a dry eye." The vets were overwhelmed by the outpouring of gratitude they received. "How do you say thanks?" asked Bob. The former member of the Merchant Marine had already been feted at a Village Council Meeting, where a proclamation was read in his honor.
Honor Flight Chicago was started by Mary Pettinato. Her father was a veteran who confessed on his death bed that his one regret was not seeing the WW II Memorial. Since then, over 4,000 vets have been treated to the unforgettable day Bob and Larry enjoyed. There are 21,000 WW II vets yet to go. If you know one, please contact Honor Flight Chicago, (773) 227-8387, or visit www.honorflightchicago.org. Who knows, you might be bringing together two old neighbors, who didn't know they were comrades.