My dad, John Titone, a World War II Air Force veteran, recently went on a Land of Lincoln Honor Flight. When I shared the picture of the veterans on the flight, one of my kids said, “Grandpa looks like he’s the oldest.” “Well,” I deadpanned, “It’s hard to beat 96.”
But even at 96, it’s easy to mistake my dad for someone younger. He still goes to the YMCA most mornings, works bingo for the Knights of Columbus, and always does the dishes when I show up for a Scrabble game with mom. But dad waited until 96 to go on the Honor Flight because, he says, when he was first asked as part of the local unit’s first flight in 2009 he just too busy. Mom said it was because he was never a huge fan of Washington D.C., a city he was stationed in before he became a pilot, and where he learned the printing trade at what is now the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO). He arrived by train on Easter Sunday, and the city was closed down because of snow. Then summer set in, and mom says he just remembered the heat and humidity and no AC.
My dad flew or co-piloted 26 missions from the European Theater based in England. He remembers the day he got there: Christmas Day, 1944. He headed home in May as Germany surrendered. He doesn’t talk about the experience much, but shared with my son that on one mission he was among the first planes to leave England for Germany during one of the first daytime bombing missions with the U.S. Military. He did his job in Germany, then headed back to England. As he was landing, planes were still taking off. He said he was probably still alive because Germany was not expecting the attack. The later pilots weren’t all as lucky.
This past spring, dad, and my oldest brother, Dave, saw The Cold Blue, an HBO documentary that premiered in theaters. The film was made using archived, raw color footage shot during the war from the missions of The Memphis Bell, a B-17 bomber plane like dad flew. Before the show, Dave and Dad were approached by Joan Bortolon, president of the Land of Lincoln Honor Flights, and Steve Wheeler, veteran coordinator, who asked if dad had been on an honor flight. The duo went on to talk dad into going, with Dave easily agreeing to be his escort.
While completing the application, Dave discovered he was considered too old to be Dad’s escort, so an under-70-year-old brother, Rob, was recruited for the job. But as a Vietnam veteran, Dave got to go, too!
Early Wake-up Call
The day started early with a 4:15 Abraham Lincoln Capitol Airport arrival. The group of about 100 veterans, staff and chaperones landed at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport by 8:30 a.m. They were greeted by a hundreds of people including school kids. He called it, “incredible. Everyone wanted to shake our hands.” After the gracious welcome, dad says the group then got into four large buses and headed to the monuments via a police escort. “Everything was very choreographed.” He adds, “Everyone was so enthusiastic and helpful, but some people were worried we wouldn’t enjoy ourselves. I don’t know how you couldn’t.”
The typical Honor Flight includes a visit to every war memorial and ends with a stop at Arlington National Cemetery for the changing of the guard. The weather changed as well, going from a beautiful, sunny day to a stormy, late afternoon, but it didn’t stop the vets from appreciating the ceremony.
More Family Ties
Throughout the day my family text group was lighting up. Not only were Dave and Rob capturing memories, but my sister, Angie, who lives in D.C., and six other family members were on the ground documenting everything. Dad describes the Washington, DC organization as nothing short of magic. “Tony rented a van to drive everyone around. Angie knew our schedule, and she had everyone organized at each stop waiting for us.” As the local, Angie was able to quickly show dad his name on the Wall of Honor at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum stop. Angie also had the advantage: it wasn’t her first Honor Flight. A cousin had flown in on the June Honor Flight, and Angie was a “groupie” that day, too.
The biggest surprise was the arrival of a recently appointed Army Colonel Frank Bart, a neighbor “boy” who still visits mom and dad at Christmas when he’s home for the holidays. Franks works at the Pentagon. Dad says people were really impressed that he showed up in uniform to say hi to everyone. (Well, he really came to say hi to you, dad….)
Long Day in the Best of Times
The Honor Flights are obviously a long day, but this trip was made especially long thanks to late-day thunderstorms. The flight was supposed to come into Springfield around 8 p.m. We had our flags and our plan to get mom to the airport in plenty of time for the arrival, but not too much time waiting around. About 7:30 we got the first text that “the boys” were still on the ground in DC. As mom’s kitchen filled with our group of well-wishers, the messages kept coming in. Finally, it looked like they might leave around 11 p.m.
At this point I have to confess that I said, “I have to go to work tomorrow. I need to get to bed.” Of course, that’s what dad wanted everyone to do, but mom would have none of that. She jokingly told dad on the phone, “You’re not here to be the boss of me. I’ll see you at the airport.”
Much to Dad’s amazement, there were hundreds of people waiting at the airport when they deplaned about 1:30 a.m. Even though very tired, he walked all the way down the line, shaking hands with everyone. But the best pictures are of dad and mom seeing each other in the airport. I envision these same faces some 70 years ago as he got home from the war. Only back then, he says they put him and the other airmen on a boat to cross the Atlantic, and he was sick the entire time. His only “complaint” this trip home was to say to my brother as they waited on the tarmac in DC: “This seat was comfortable when we sat down three hours ago.”
Many Heroes . . . Just One Dad
While my dad has an amazing story to tell, so do the other veterans on the journey, including that of my brother Dave. He was a lieutenant at Great Lakes Naval Hospital from 1969 to 1971. He was the Officer (Lieutenant) in Charge of the Neuropsychiatric and Orthopedic units. He also trained hospital corpsmen. After two years of active duty, he was in the reserves for 10 years.
On the trip, there were 59 Vietnam War vets, 28 Korean War vets, and five WW II vets. The Honor Flight team is working furiously to make sure all the WW II vets make the journey as soon as possible.
Each vet’s expenses average about $525. INB is supporting a fundraiser, Operation Honor Flight Day of Giving, Oct. 10, 2019. The event is spearheaded by Butler Funeral Home. All of our Springfield area branches will serve as donation locations. Just stop by Oct. 10 and make your donation. Our bank lobbies are open until 5 p.m., with our downtown main lobby closing at 4 p.m.