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Island Vets honored on journey to Washington
If the military operation couldn’t be called the Longest Day, it certainly did a good job of stretching out Saturday.
Kicking off at 5:30 a.m. at the American Legion Hall and wrapping up there around 11 p.m., 24 Island veterans accompanied by 18 friends and family took a whirlwind excursion to Washington D.C. Included in the exhausting but exhilarating day were two plane trips, three bus rides and visits to multiple memorials in the nation’s capital. Also included were meals, honor salutes, a welcoming reception by Naval Academy midshipmen, a visit with former Sen. Robert Dole at the World War II Memorial, some misty eyes mixed in with laughter, and many memories brought to the surface.
Listening to the conversations of those waiting at the gate at Islip’s MacArthur Airport Saturday morning, Dr. John Rodgers, 87, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge as a 19-yearold private, said, “There are a lot of stories here.”
The brainchild of Police Officer Tom Cronin, who also became its guiding spirit, Saturday’s tour was organized by Honor Flight Long Island, the local chapter of a national non-profit group dedicated to bringing World War II veterans to the memorial on the National Mall honoring their service.
Accompanying the Greatest Generation veterans on Saturday were Islanders who served during the Korea and Vietnam eras, those posted to Beirut, Lebanon and the first Gulf War.
Officer Cronin, through an ad placed in the Reporter several months ago plus two follow-up letters, raised about $13,000 to pay all expenses for the trip. “But it was mostly word-of-mouth that did it,” he said. “It came together really fast.”
The reception at Baltimore-Washington Airport was one of many highlights for the vets. Emerging from the jetway into the terminal they were surprised to walk down a long corridor formed by 40 midshipmen, students at Annapolis in their dress uniforms, applauding and whooping. Flags had been handed out by Honor Flight personnel to onlookers who joined in the raucous welcome.
George Strom, 85, had tears in his eyes. Later, walking through the terminal to the bus with his wife, Marie, the Navy veteran who was part of the invasion of Iwo Jima when he was still a teenager, said he’d been “surprised and astounded” by the greeting.
Pointing to his baseball cap identifying him as a WW II veteran, he said, “When I wear this, some people will stop me, but I never had anything like this.”
At the World War II Memorial, former Sen. Dole, a severely wounded WWII veteran, who spearheaded the effort to fund and open the memorial in 2004, sat at an entrance to the marble-columned plaza, surrounded by veterans on the perfect October day.
Later in the afternoon at the Vietnam Memorial, Joseph “Butch” Klenawicus, 62, James “Mac” McGayhey, 63, and Charles Wyatt, 67, looked for the name on the wall of a fallen comrade, James Wilson, Jr. All three men served in Vietnam, with Mr. Wyatt wounded in action, resulting in the loss of his right leg.
With the help of a National Park Service guide, the name was found. The men paid their respects with silence. Then, with some catches in the throat, the stories began again. Mr. Klenawicus, originally reluctant to come on the trip, thanked Officer Cronin for encouraging him to join his fellow veterans.
The vets and their friends and family were surprised by another warm greeting when their chartered bus returned to the Island after the long day. The fire department shot off water cannon salutes and draped an American flag from a crane high over the street at the American Legion Hall.
As a four-piece brass band played, a crowd of a residents turned out to welcome their veterans home.