WASHINGTON — It is four in the morning and already they are lined up at Chicago’s Midway airport, ready to go. It’s like a military formation, 107 men and three women, all veterans who served either in World War II, Korea or Vietnam.
Their destination: Washington D.C, on a chartered Southwest Airlines 737 thanks to Honor Flight Chicago, a group of dedicated volunteers who make it their mission to provide a well-deserved thank you to veterans for their military service.
“Three World War II veterans, 10 Korean War veterans and 97 Vietnam veterans are on this flight,” said Honor Flight Chicago Co-director Doug Meffley, “We have now flown over 10,600 Veterans which is the most of any Honor Flight hub in the nation.”
Southwest Airlines First Officer Brian Dunn, who serves as an Army Reserve public affairs officer at the 85th U.S. Army Reserve Support Command, was the co-pilot on this flight. He met with the veterans, shook their hands, and asked about their service prior to the flight.
“I think it’s such a special thing. There’s an organization that will mobilize all these volunteers to have such an impactful day for the World War II, Korea and Vietnam Veterans,” said Dunn, who worked his first honor flight eight years ago. “To have the honor of working as a crew member on this flight is pretty special.”
Flying and military service are part of Dunn’s Family heritage too. He always wanted to pursue flying since he was a young man.
“I think flying was always a part of me. I’ve known since I was eight years old that I wanted to be an airline pilot. I put all my energy and focus into achieving that dream. It’s a big reason why and how I (joined) the military,” said Dunn.
Dunn, who currently serves at the rank of lieutenant colonel, further touched on his service in the Army Reserve.
“Along the way I’ve made a wonderful career in the Army Reserve in a non-flying capacity. I’ve had the opportunity to be the head of human resources on a general staff and I’ve taught military history at the University of Illinois Chicago. I’ve been a commander and now I get to work in Army public affairs,” said Dunn. “It’s been a diverse, wonderful 26-year career so far and I’m not done yet. I’m grateful for it.”
Dunn’s grandfather was the captain of a B-17 crew that flew 38 missions over Europe at the end of World War II.
“He was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed. My father and husband both served in nuclear submarines in the Navy,” Dunn said.
After they arrived in Washington, D.C., a police escort led the chartered buses to the Iwo Jima memorial for the first stop. Then it was on to the World War II memorial where they were greeted by an actor portraying General George Patton.
There, John Clauson, a St. Charles, Illinois resident, recalled his service in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
“I was in the air corps cadet program for pilots for about 18 months. They sent us to college for four months in Galesburg, Illinois. Then I went to cadet training in San Antonio, Texas. In 1945, we finally got to Chickasha, Oklahoma where we started to fly the PT-17 Stearman,” said Clauson. “I was reclassified to go to B-29 gunnery school. We used the B-24 to learn the gunnery system. We finished gunnery school in August and we were ready to go when they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.”
Clauson was honorably discharged at Fort Sheridan, Illinois.
After leaving the World War II memorial, the veterans traveled to the Korean War and Vietnam Veteran’s memorials.
At the Vietnam Veteran’s memorial, a veteran quietly etched the name of a Soldier on a piece of tracing paper.
Vietnam Veteran James Doffin, of Dyer, Indiana, who served as a demolition expert and combat engineer, was moved by the outpouring of gratitude from citizens which, Doffin stated, did not happen when he returned home.
“When we came home (from Vietnam) nobody paid much attention to us. Today was awesome. I think I shook more hands than I did in my lifetime,” Doffin said. “Words can’t express how nice it was.”
The last stop for the veterans was the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport. It is home to the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the Space Shuttle Discovery and a SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.
When they returned to Midway Airport that evening, the veterans were greeted by hundreds of well-wishers who waved American flags and held welcome home signs thanking them for their service.
“This is the most fulfilling thing I will do in my life. To see the veterans come home to this love and respect that is 50 years in the coming,” said Meffley. “I have yet to get through a flight day without tears.