Southland veterans moved by salute to service and sacrifice
BY GINGER BRASHINGER Correspondent June 20, 2012 3:24PM
World War II veteran Charlie Davis, of Country Club Hills, greets the large crowd gathered to welcome him and other veterans home during Honor Flight Chicago at Midway International Airport on Chicago's South Side Tuesday, June 19, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 23, 2012 7:21AM
For many, it was long overdue. But there were no complaints — only smiles, tears and gratitude as 96 World War II veterans arrived Tuesday night at Midway Airport in Chicago to a homecoming celebration most did not receive after the war nearly 70 years ago.
“We never got a welcome like that,” said Mel Elmhorst, 86, referring to his return to the States after his World War II Navy service. “This has been fantastic. Everyone has been so warm and friendly, catering to us and thanking us for our service.”
Elmhorst, of Orland Park, was one of a group of World War II veterans honored with a trip to the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., by “Honor Flight Chicago.” The nonprofit recognizes the veterans for “their service and sacrifices.”
Elmhorst traveled with his friend, William Krueger, 89, of Orland Hills, who served in the Navy from 1942-44.
“I was surprised at everything that was going on. I didn’t expect anything like this,” Krueger said.
That seemed to be the general consensus of the veterans, who returned home about 9 p.m. to a parade in their honor, complete with active military personnel, a brass band, the USO of Illinois, the Midway Fire Department Bagpipers, and more than 2,000 family members, friends and supporters who waited several hours at the airport to greet them.
Emotions ran high as many veterans in wheelchairs manned by military personnel shook hands with cheering supporters waving flags and hoisting posters with messages of gratitude.
From start to finish, veterans said they were surprised at all the attention they received. Prior to their early morning departure from Midway, they were entertained by the “Legacy Girls” with 1940s-style songs while enjoying coffee and doughnuts supplied by USO of Illinois volunteers.
Accompanied by guardians, the veterans were escorted to take in various D.C. sights, with the World War II Memorial as the highlight.
Lester Catlin, 91, of Blue Island, said he was overwhelmed by the experience and could not believe how many people greeted the veterans throughout the day.
“I really have to say I almost started to cry because of the enthusiasm of so many people,” Catlin said. “This is absolutely unbelievable.”
To some, it might be Catlin’s service to his country that is unbelievable. It began in a high school Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, extended to the Illinois National Guard (he became a lieutenant colonel) and continued in radio communications in the Navy from 1942-45. Catlin then was active with Blue Island American Legion Post 50 until last year, and he was instrumental in bringing an A-20 World War II fighter jet to Memorial Park in Blue Island.
Tuesday’s homecoming proved meaningful for friends and family as well. Donna Nielsen, of Darien, was touched by her husband Larry’s reaction to the day’s events.
“He doesn’t say a lot. He’s a very quiet person, but he’s called me a couple of times today and said it was incredible,” Nielsen said.
Veterans or family members may apply for an Honor Flight Chicago trip at www.honorflightchicago.org.