Identical twins Tom and Tony Bezouska served together in the Army for more than two years during the Korean War.
The two — nicknamed “The Bazooka Brothers” because of their last name — spent roughly ten months in the 187th Airborne Combat Regimental Team. During that time, they made jumps from four different types of airplanes and took part in battles at Pork Chop Hill, Old Baldy and Triangle Ridge.
The brothers then became medics — their job, as they describe it, was to stabilize wounds enough to get soldiers to the battalion doctor. They saw things that still haunt them to this day.
Both brothers suffered shrapnel wounds during the war, but they had a job to do, and they made sure they did it well. They subscribed to a lesson they each learned early on during their time in Korea: “When you are in the infantry and the shelling comes in, you hit the ground. When you are a medic and the shelling comes, you go to work.”
Tom and Tony returned to the United States in January 1954, six months after the ceasefire. They sadly remember arriving home to no special festivities or ceremony. Most of their friends didn’t even know where the brothers were.
That realization hurt, and it stuck with the two for decades. In fact, they never spoke about their war experiences until 1995 when the Korean War Memorial was dedicated.
On April 12, 2017, “The Bazooka Brothers” experienced their long-awaited welcome home thanks to Honor Flight Chicago. The two were on Honor Flight Chicago’s 76th flight and took part in a day that they will never forget.
They were able to hear the thank yous they never heard so many years ago. And they were able to travel to Washington, D.C., and see the memorials along with more than 100 other senior war heroes.
When they arrived home after their day of honor, the two were beaming — together.
The scrapbook sits in Miljan Akin’s home, a source of memories and inspiration for the 84-year-old.
Inside the scrapbook rests a collection of letters from family members, friends and complete strangers thanking Akin for her service in the Air Force during the Korean War. She takes a few letters out from a bursting envelope inside the book every now and again to read them and remember the moment she first received them.
“Oh, that almost made me cry,” Akin said. “All the letters from my friends, some of my relatives and the school kids had letters with drawings that they had done at school, it was just unbelievable.”
Akin received the letters during Mail Call as part of her day of recognition from Honor Flight Chicago. Akin flew to Washington, D.C., with approximately 100 other veterans — including her husband, Frank Akin — on Sept. 7, 2016, and she still remembers just about every moment from the day. From the 4 a.m. arrival at Chicago’s Midway Airport to the tears that flowed down her cheeks as a band welcomed her and her other veterans to Dulles Airport. She definitely remembers the little children who shook her hand at the welcome home celebration back at Midway.
“I relive that day very often,” Akin said. “It was just a perfect day.”
The experience not only gave Akin a chance to see the memorials built in her honor and meet fellow veterans, but it helped introduce her story to loved ones and strangers who knew little about her service history.
“For years, a lot of people I know didn’t even know I had been in the service,” Akin said. “I had never talked about it.”
That includes her own children, who didn’t know much about their mother’s time in the armed forces. For many people in her life, seeing Akin’s pictures and hearing her talk about her day of honor with Honor Flight Chicago was the first time they heard about her service.
Some were surprised. All were proud.
Akin says she continues to relive the trip over and over in her mind. She takes great pride in her service as she looks back on every photo and letter from her special day, as she keeps each moment fresh in her mind.
When Frank Akin arrived home from a jam-packed day visiting Washington, D.C., with Honor Flight Chicago, he was not empty-handed. The 85-year-old former Air Force Airman 1st Class returned with a packet filled with dozens of letters of gratitude for him and his service.
Akin served in the Air Force with his wife, Miljan, during the Korean War. In September of 2016, they flew with Honor Flight Chicago to visit the memorials in Washington, D.C. Waiting crowds were overjoyed to see a veteran couple being honored.
“Everybody was floored,” Frank Akin said. “They always wanted to shake our hands and take pictures of us.”
Akin spent the day reminiscing about the past with fellow veterans, while also making new memories. He got the chance to visit several war memorials and watch a rifle demonstration in the afternoon. During a ceremony at the World War II Memorial honoring all the Honor Flight Chicago veterans, Akin proudly carried a flag with the Honor Guard. After a dinner and some dancing, Akin got on the plane back to Chicago.
He was in for another memory-making moment: Mail Call.
Envelopes were passed around the airplane, one for each veteran onboard. Akin opened his and found a pile of letters from family and friends who wrote their appreciation and thanks for his service and dedication.
The Akins excitedly met their son and daughter in the cheering crowd at Midway Airport. They were ready to go home, but the memories from the day weren’t over. Weeks later, the couple received a photo album in the mail, sent by Miljan’s Guardian, as well as many other pictures from the flight. Akin still showcases photographic evidence of the day whenever he can.
“We got all kinds of pictures,” Akin said. “I took them to show the father at church. I took them when I went to see my doctor. He saw all the pictures.”
The photos are precious to Akin, as are the Mail Call letters he received. The pictures, though, are all that’s left in his possession. He decided the letters would be more impactful in someone else’s hands.
“I gave all of mine to my daughter,” Akin said. “That’ll be something she can remember me by when I’m gone.”
When Anthony Repeta arrived at Midway Airport in the early hours of May 11, 2016, he didn’t feel all that special. He was just a “sleepy old Navy veteran” on his way to Washington, D.C.
As he sat alongside roughly 100 other veterans at their flight gate, Repeta was kept awake by a trio performing as the Andrews sisters. The music brought back memories. Repeta was in active duty during the Korean War from 1954-56. He never saw combat, so he’s always had mixed feelings about being called a hero.
“I was a [serviceman] during the Korean War, but I didn’t come back with any wounds,” Repeta said. “I crossed the Atlantic six times in an escort carrier carrying planes over to the NATO countries.”
The 81-year-old spent the next few hours getting to know his Honor Flight Chicago Guardian — a petty officer first class — as they flew to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials built to honor the service of men like Repeta. He had visited the Korean War Memorial before, but seeing the metal poncho-clad soldiers standing resolute amidst the day’s rain struck a powerful chord for Repeta. He could almost see the men trudging through South Korea’s countryside as he looked at the memorial.
“It was raining that day, and that made it much more real,” Repeta said. “You have these guys walking through the field in their metal ponchos – that was the setting they were dressed to walk in.”
Repeta’s return to Midway was unlike anything he ever experienced before. Thousands of people shouted and smiled at him as they thanked him for his service. Repeta was surprised to look into the crowd and see his own family proudly cheering for him — as a husband, as a father, as a grandfather — as he came home.
The mixed feelings he had battled that morning were gone. He now believed he was a hero.
Repeta felt so empowered by the day that he immediately set out to help other veterans receive their honor.
“The first thing I did when I came home is I called my brother-in-law, a World War II veteran, and told him that he should sign up and go,” Repeta said. “He did that, and of course we shared our common experience!”
Joseph Yi was born in South Korea but moved to the United States when he was 10 years old. When the Korean War broke out, Yi volunteered to support and serve the U.S. A private first class in the Marine Corps, Yi played a key role for the U.S. during prisoner exchange between the two sides.
Despite his importance, when the war ended, Yi was never recognized. The pain stayed with him for more than 60 years.
Then, on Sept. 7, 2016, Yi received his day of honor and a flight to Washington, D.C., with Honor Flight Chicago. His son-in-law encouraged him to participate, and the 86-year-old is so grateful that he did.
“It was a tremendous day,” Yi said, “probably one of the best days of my life.”
Yi visited a collection of memorials that day, including the Marine Corps Memorial, built to honor him and his comrades. He enjoyed spending quality time with other veterans that day, and the experience was extra special because his son served as his Guardian.
On the return flight to Chicago, Yi was surprised by Mail Call. He read letters from his family, friends, and even people he didn’t know. He kept the letters and still rereads them from time to time. They help him remember precious moments from his day.
One moment forever ingrained in his memory, though, is the celebration that awaited him and his fellow veterans when they arrived back at Chicago’s Midway Airport. Thousands of people welcomed Yi home, cheered for him and thanked him for his service.
It was the recognition he deserved, but never received.
Yi lived with the disappointment of not being recognized for more than 60 years, but on that September evening – as men, women and children of all ages shook his hand and said thank you – the agony and discouragement began to slip away.