The first major Cold War conflict lived up to its name.
Anyone who served during the Korean War, has talked with veterans or watched old newsreel footage, knows there was a silent, relentless adversary in addition to the enemy – the bone-chilling, frigid temperatures on the Korean peninsula.
Christy “Chris” Bellina, who recently returned from his Honor Flight Chicago “Day of Honor” trip to Washington, D.C., dealt with the effects of that adversary first-hand.
An Army corporal from November 1951 to November 1953, Chris served as an infantry and field medic at Brook Medical Center in San Antonio, TX. He treated incoming casualties from Korea – and many of those were frostbite cases.
Chris considers himself blessed on many fronts and is grateful for much, which may be a result of starting out with so little.
“Being born in the Depression,” he said, “our family was very poor … often my dad could not pay the $1.00 a month tuition. As a result, the nuns knew our problem and when I was in the 7th and 8th grade, they got me a job as a janitor sweeping the classrooms for $1.00 a night. True story! Being a janitor is not bad.”
Chris appreciated his Day of Honor in Washington, from the “many volunteers who could not do enough for us” to Honor Flight Chicago Co-Founder, CEO, and “Janitor” Mary Pettinato. “You will never know the joy you have brought to so many thankful vets,” Chris said. “God bless you, your family and all who helped make it the success it was. Thank you, thank you.”
The strong feelings Chris has about the Day of Honor experience probably help explain his blunt message to other veterans with a chance to make this trip:
“It would be one of the dumbest things you could do (to say no) and you would miss out on one of the greatest days of your life.”
Besides being full of gratitude, Chris has remained true to his roots. To Honor Flight Chicago he said, “If in need of a janitor, please call.”
Marty Bilecki vividly remembers important events from the past. But his recent Honor Flight Chicago Day of Honor trip to Washington, D.C., might rival anything from the “good old days,” he said.
His Washington visit brought back memories of growing up before World War II and his military experience overseas during the Cold War occupation of Germany. From 1953-55, Marty was an Army PFC serving as a Military Police officer in Augsburg, Germany, providing town patrol in southern and central Germany.
Marty’s expectations for the Day of Honor trip were surpassed by the end of the day. He was “overwhelmed” by volunteers at the departure from Chicago and upon his arrival in Washington. “It’s good knowing so many people still care,” he said. “I thought the vets were not appreciated anymore.”
Being asked about the Welcome Home Celebration at Midway Airport brought back more memories. Marty recalled “celebrating the end of World War II in our Chicago neighborhood and my return to that same neighborhood after my service.”
Marty was impressed after “seeing so many people come out that evening to honor us. I’m very proud now to have received so many good Americans’ comments. Especially the younger generation. I loved seeing them all at the Welcome Home party,” he said.
After offering a “Big Thanks” to all who made the day so memorable. Marty said that, because of his trip, another family member was poised to make Honor Flight Chicago memories of his own: Marty’s son-in-law James, a nurse, was about to take an Honor Flight Chicago trip to Washington as a medical guardian.
Veterans who fly to Washington, D.C. with Honor Flight Chicago and are recognized for their service are asked afterward if they would be willing to share their experience with other veterans who haven’t yet received their day of honor.
Many veterans say yes. Others cite health issues as a reason they’d rather not speak.
Then there is Richard “Buster” Strauss, a Korean War veteran, who wouldn’t let a lost larynx prevent him from speaking about his memorable day.
Strauss was a corporal in the U.S. Army who served in Korea with combat engineers as a radio operator. He said there were several memorable parts of his recent Honor Flight Chicago trip to Washington, from the guardian assigned to him for the day (“my guardian angel and personal guide to the sights”), to the reception at Dulles Airport that was “much-appreciated and unexpected,” to the Welcome Home Celebration.
“At Midway, it totally blew me away and to tears of joy,”Strauss recalled. “The final walk from the plane through all the people welcoming all of us” was especially meaningful to him. “A far cry from when I was discharged in October 1952 and met by three people – my dad, mother and fiancé!”
For someone for whom speech no longer comes as easily as it does to most of us, Strauss doesn’t seem to have much difficulty serving as an “honorary ambassador” for Honor Flight Chicago. If another veteran asked him about Honor Flight Chicago, “I would tell them to sign up ASAP,” he said. “My sister, a Marine in World War II, has taken my advice and is scheduled to fly in September.”
Many people know little of or don’t remember U.S. veterans’ service – and sacrifice – in Korea from 1950-53. About his Honor Flight Chicago Day of Honor, Buster Strauss said it “made me realize that I was only one small part of the ongoing effort to bring peace to the Koreas.”
Tom Quinn thought he was prepared for his Honor Flight Chicago trip to Washington, D.C. Like many veterans, he had heard stories about it.
Now that his trip is over, he has some important advice for those yet to go.
“I would tell every veteran I know that it is an experience of a lifetime,” Tom said. “I would tell each one of my fellow vets that the people of America are giving you a very special thank you for serving your country. You deserve this honor. Do not miss out.”
Tom was a corporal in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, serving in a Fire Detection Center. He plotted topography maps and sent coordinates for missile launches into battle. It was no surprise that a highlight of his Honor Flight Chicago trip to Washington was seeing the Korean War Memorial.
But when asked what was the most memorable part of the day, Tom said there were “so many memorable things that we experienced it is very difficult to pick only one.” Every stop the veterans made that day, including the visits to the World War II and Vietnam War memorials, was, in Tom’s words, “special unto itself.”
And what about coming home to the welcome at Midway Airport, and meeting up with his family? “Overwhelming,” Tom said.
The Korean War has often been called The Forgotten War. One of Honor Flight Chicago’s ongoing goals is to ensure that the veterans who fought there will always be remembered and appreciated for their service.
“I served 65 years ago,” Tom said. “I never would have believed that so many people really cared. And to all the volunteers, staff, organizers, and anyone associated with the program, thank you. Well done.”
Tony Pirello, who served his country during the Korean War, was overwhelmed with the gratitude he received during Honor Flight Chicago’s 77th flight to Washington, D.C., a day-long journey to thank veterans for their sacrifice. The Chicago resident served in the U.S. Army from 1953 to 1955 as a small-arms instructor and attended the U.S. Army Engineer School.
He credits the hundreds of volunteers for ensuring a successful trip.
“Your entire staff of volunteers were so outstanding and considerate; I felt comfortable and thrilled traveling with other vets,” Pirello said. “It was a long, wonderful day, and the reception in Washington and Chicago brought tears to my eyes.”
Pirello said there were many highlights to his trip, including spending the day with his Guardian who escorted him through D.C. “Susan McGinnis was amazing,” he said. Other impressive moments included the visit to the Korean War Memorial and the “enormous” Welcome Home reception at Midway Airport.
“To see all the people who were there — both young and old — to thank us for our service, including Gov. Rauner,” Pirello said. “The marching bands, the cheers, it made me feel like I was a special hero.”
Pirello now tells other veterans about the Honor Flight Chicago experience and encourages them to apply as soon as possible. “I would tell them I had a wonderful and emotional experience.
He never sought acknowledgment for his service but appreciates the recognition from all people who made the day so meaningful.
“Since the Korean ‘Forgotten’ War ended 64 years ago, us vets were taken for granted and also ‘forgotten,’” Pirello said. “But thanks to Honor Flight Chicago’s mission, I and the other vets who were on the flight do now feel recognized for our service to our country with honor and dignity. I thank you all, and am grateful I was able to make the trip.”
As a Korean War veteran who served in the New York Army National Guard’s 27th Division from 1953 to 1955, Jack Okesson felt a duty to protect his family and his community. That’s why it was so moving when those people recognized his sacrifice as part of Honor Flight Chicago’s 77th flight to Washington, D.C., on May 10.
“I thought it’d been a wonderful day,” he said.
Before the flight, he spoke with retired Army Col. Wallace Alcorn, a Korean War veteran who took his Honor Flight in 2016. Okesson said the colonel gave few details of the day’s events but did “exude an enthusiasm that was infectious.”
In the company of fellow veterans, Okesson visited D.C.’s war memorials and museums, but two events really stood out. The first was Mail Call, an Honor Flight Chicago tradition where family, friends and members of the community write thank-you letters to the veterans. Among his letters were two from his 8-year-old twin grandsons.
“When I was in the service, I received no mail — my family never wrote,” Okesson said. “To get that package and see it stuffed with all sorts of correspondence was overwhelming. I am not a weeper, but I wept then.”
The other stand-out experience of the day was the return to Midway Airport.
As Honor Flight Chicago’s jet landed, Okesson said he was looking forward to unwinding and returning home. As the aircraft approached the gate, two Chicago Fire Department engines provided a water cannon salute as a contingent of police officers and firefighters stood at attention on either side of the jet. It was a fitting end, he thought, to a moving day.
“As we walked up the ramp, I heard a great deal of noise up ahead and knew that it was not yet over,” Okesson said. “I was not at all ready for what was to come.”
A cadet from Great Lakes Naval Training Station escorted Okesson through the greeting lines, where hundreds of cheering family, friends, neighbors and other supporters welcomed the veterans home.
“I went into sensory overload,” he said. “To be greeted like I was was probably the most memorable and intense experience of my life. The people greeted me as if I was a hero, which I have never believed about myself.”