Many who served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II say that when the war ended, things went back to business as usual. They flew back to the United States, were discharged from their bases, took a train or got a ride from family back to their home towns, got jobs, got married and carried on with their lives as best they could.
In most cases, there was no fanfare. Certainly people were grateful—very grateful—to this generation of Americans who sacrificed so much to protect our freedom. But a lot of them never really got a proper welcome home.
One organization has recognized the need to honor and thank these veterans. Honor Flight gives them their "welcome home" one plane load at a time, at no cost to the veteran. And what it does for them, words cannot begin to describe.
Lexington Square of Elmhurst resident Ted Arey and 40-year Elmhurst resident Stanley Bartecki were among about 100 World War II veterans who participated in an Honor Flight that took them not just to Washington, D.C., but also back in time more than 60 years. They arrived at Midway Airport at 3:30 a.m. April 4 not knowing exactly how emotional the trip would be, but by the time they returned at 10 p.m. that night, they truly felt as if they had their welcome home.
"It was a long day, but it was a wonderful day," Arey said.
As they arrived at Midway to begin their journey, they were greeted by hundreds of volunteers, and each veteran was assigned to a guardian who would facilitate the trip and guide them along the way. Women dressed in 1930s garb and men wearing zoot suits sang and did the jitterbug in the airport, Bartecki said.
"I almost forgot how ugly those zoot suits were," Bartecki said, laughing. "It was fun watching them dance."
Each veteran got a wheelchair, whether they could walk or not.
"They put you in a wheelchair because they can move you along faster," Arey said. "You're pretty much in wheelchairs until they get you to the sites they want you to see."
When they arrived at Dulles International Airport, another set of guardians was waiting for them. The veterans were divided into groups and boarded four color-coded buses, red, white, blue and gold.
Bartecki, who says he's "kind of a quiet guy," took to his D.C. guardian immediately.
"I got a really wonderful guy," he said. "We hit it off right from the beginning, chatting and laughing and stuff. All were as friendly as can be."
The first stop was the World War II Veterans Memorial, which opened in 2004. They also made stops at the Iwo Jima Memorial, home of the famous flag-raising statue, the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial and the Korean War Memorial.
Memories of their service from seven decades ago flooded back.
"It was unbelievable how easy it was to talk to people," Bartecki said. "You sit next to someone and you have no idea who they are, but you talk and pretty soon you learn as much about him as he learns about you. It's the commonality, talking about your war efforts."
Arey enlisted in the Navy when he was 17, but he had to wait until his 18th birthday to get in.
"The day after I graduated high school, I was in the Navy. I went through boot camp at Great Lakes (Naval Academy), then I went off to radio school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison," he said. "I trained there to become a radio man until I was shipped out to San Francisco, and from there was assigned to a hospital ship … in the Pacific."
During the invasion of Okinawa, Arey's job was to collect the wounded by taking them off small boats and bringing them aboard his hospital ship, and then he assigned them to a hospital ward depending on their injuries.
"We did six trips from Guam to Saipan, which is where the hospitals were—back and forth to Okinawa," he said. "I saw a lot of casualties, but I didn't see them fresh. I saw them as we picked them up off the small boats. Some of them were pretty beat up."
He remembered his first night at Buckner Bay in Okinawa. They lit the big red cross on top of his ship, assuming the Japanese would honor the rules of war and not attack a hospital ship.
"It was just a big target" for the Kamikaze pilots, he said, adding a ship nearby was dive-bombed that night. "After that, we didn't do that anymore."
When the war ended, he was given one more assignment.
"We went to China with two boats full of Marines—the hospital ship and two others—to get all the POWs," he said. "They'd been holding some of them since the Bataan Death March. It was a heck of an experience to see all those guys."
They brought them back to Buckner Bay, where a fleet of battleships, destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers lined the bay to welcome them.
"These POWs were coming up to this great collection of might, all there with their flags flying," he said. "I'll never forget that experience if I live to be 100."
His Beginning, the War's End
Stanley Bartecki could hardly wait to join the war in 1944.
"I went to St. Rita High School (in Chicago) and they found out they had a group of boys who would be 18 before June graduation," he said. "So they had special classes for us. I took pre-flight training, got enough grades to graduate. We were the first—and probably the only—class that graduated in February."
Bartecki completed basic training in Texas, then headed to Osaka, Japan, where he worked for the post office as a corporal in the Army. The war ended soon after he got there.
"We were at the bivouac, about two days after training," he said. "We were marching down this dusty road when a truck came by and (a soldier) said 'The war is over! The war is over!' But we stayed and finished (our mission). I saw pictures of everyone celebrating and having a great time. We were really mad that they didn't bring us back."
But he did get to see some interesting parts of the world during that year and a half.
"We had quite an adventure," he said, remembering his travels to Nagasaki, France, Panama, the Philippines and back to Japan.
The Return Home
On the plane ride back to Midway last week, the veterans were surprised to hear "Mail call!", just like when they served during the war. Friends, family and even strangers all wrote letters thanking them for their service and sacrifice, and those letters were passed out on the plane.
But perhaps the most emotional part of the trip was landing and disembarking at Midway. Firetrucks with their red lights flashing used their water hoses to make an arch over the plane as it taxied in at Midway.
"It was beautiful. We though, 'wow, that is great,' " Arey said. "Then we disembarked, walked down the concourse and it was lined with firefighters—a great display. One of them said, 'You ain't seen nothin' yet."
As they walked into the main airport they were greeted by thousands of people—friends, family, veterans from all branches of the service, Scout troops, bag pipers. A drum and bugle corps played and a flag ceremony was performed.
"It was the most overwhelming thing you'd ever want to experience," Arey said. "It just stood the hair up on the back of your neck. It was really special. You had to be there to really appreciate it."
Everyone wanted to shake their hands, Bartecki said.
"That was wonderful," he said. "I never shook so many hands. Boy, just wonderful. Especially the kids. They were so great."
It's hard to put into words what it means to these veterans, said Tracey Reich, life enrichment director at Lexington Square. She helped facilitate the trip for Arey.
"It's an experience they have a hard time describing to us, as well," she said. "It's so meaningful, so emotional. This is their first real homecoming."
Finally, after 67 years.
"It was the greatest welcome home I've ever had," Arey said.