On Thursday, 54 veterans from the Kansas City area will travel to Washington, D.C., and back, on the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks there and in New York City.
Almost all are veterans of World War II, and fear isn’t a factor in their flight plans.
“I feel more safe now — they’ve got better security,” said Augustine Cisneros, 93, of Kansas City, who served in the infantry in World War II.
Cisneros, Ken Oberg of Shawnee and the other veterans are being flown at no cost through the Honor Flight Network of Kansas City, part of a national nonprofit organization founded to transport veterans to the memorials built in their honor.
Flights tend to be timed for observances such as Veterans Day, D-Day and other patriotic holidays. But for years, safety concerns prevented the Northland-based organization from scheduling a Sept. 11 flight, said Erin Winstead, president of Honor Flight Network of Kansas City.
Then one day, when Winstead shared those concerns with a veteran, she was told, “It’s time to take our freedom back.”
And the first Sept. 11 flight took off in 2012.
Since its founding in 2008, Honor Flight Network of Kansas City has flown more than 500 veterans on 17 flights to Washington, D.C. Some have been veterans of the Korean or Vietnam wars.
The reception awaiting them is overwhelming: Upon landing, the airplane is met by a water cannon salute — a cannon on each side of the plane shooting water across — bands playing, hundreds of people eager to greet them and flags flying from buildings citywide.
“If you don’t tear up, there’s something wrong with you,” said Gary Lint, vice president of Honor Flight Network of Kansas City.
Honor flights are completed in a day — leaving as early as 6 a.m. and returning as late as 10:30 p.m.
Also serving the Kansas City region is Heartland Honor Flight, which schedules two privately chartered flights annually. The next flight, Oct. 7, “is filling up fast, but a few seats are still available for World War II veterans,” said John Doole, president of Heartland Honor Flight.
The October flight is Heartland’s 12th since 2008. About 800 World War II veterans have been flown along with some 200 from the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Anyone who saw broadcast images of crowds at memorials on the day after the government shutdown in October may have seen veterans and organizers from Heartland’s flight.
“We just walked through the barricades,” Doole said.
As a radio operator for the U.S. Army Air Transport Command during World War II, Oberg flew all over the world delivering equipment, food, personnel, supplies and prisoners. He saw cities and ports in Spain, West Africa, France, India, Guam, Brazil and elsewhere.
The Shawnee resident spent more than 1,400 hours as a radio operator on the crew of military transport aircraft, such as the C-47, a plane that could carry 6,000 pounds of cargo or transport 28 soldiers.
Oberg was 20 when he enlisted in 1943. Two years later, he recalls being in Paris on May 8, 1945, now known as V-E Day, the day the surrender of Germany was announced, officially ending the European phase of World War II.
Oberg is 90 now.
And he will see his own country’s capital for the first time Thursday.
“I saw a lot of the world, but I’ve never seen Washington, D.C.,” Oberg said.
Oberg’s travels didn’t end when he left the service in December 1945. He spent 40 years as a “commercial tourist,” Oberg’s description of his job as a salesman with a 10-state territory for a North Kansas City paint company.
Oberg attended Kansas State University on the GI Bill and earned a bachelor’s degree in business. A 6-foot, 4-inch guard, he also played basketball for the Wildcats from 1945 to 1946.
He admits he’s not quite as agile now.
“I walk with a cane,” said Oberg, who doesn’t intend to let that slow him down on Thursday’s trip.
Oberg has a good idea of what to expect, and he knows a full day awaits him. A fellow resident of Shawnee Hills Senior Living, Dorothy Pickup, was on the Sept. 11 honor flight last year, and she has shown him her scrapbook from the trip.
As Pickup and other veterans toured the memorials and historic sites last year, they were met first with public curiosity and then appreciation.
“It was quite emotional,” said Pickup, 93. “We would arrive in a group and people would gather around, talk to us and then thank us.”
She was the only woman among the veterans on the Sept. 11, 2013, tour sponsored by Honor Flight Network of Kansas City.
Flags were on display throughout Washington, D.C., and veterans were treated “like celebrities,” she said.
It was that kind of patriotism that inspired Pickup to enlist in the U.S. Army in January 1944.
“Everyone was for World War II,” she said. “So I decided I would join them, although my parents were not happy about it.”
Pickup served as a dietitian in the medical corps and earned the rank of first lieutenant.
The honor flight trip was doubly special for her. Pickup was born Sept. 11, 1920. She will celebrate her 94th birthday Thursday.
She and Oberg learned of each other’s military service through the efforts of Tom D’Andrea, director of maintenance for the Shawnee retirement community.
D’Andrea interviewed nearly 40 veterans at Shawnee Hills Senior Living and in 2012, he created an Honor Wall on the second floor, complete with framed photos, medals, memorabilia and a summary of their service.
Veterans deserve recognition year round, D’Andrea explained.
“We should honor them more than just once a year, on Veterans Day.”
Cisneros, of midtown Kansas City, agrees with D’Andrea.
Wanting to call attention to friends who didn’t return from World War II, Cisneros had a memorial built in his front yard in 2000 to honor five Kansas City “Westside Boys” who took training with him and were killed in the war.
Two angels on top of a red brick base watch over a plaque listing those friends. Behind and above the angels waves an American flag.
Cisneros was drafted in 1942 and discharged in 1946. His last two years were spent in a hospital in Springfield, Mo., recovering from a wound suffered during his last day of combat on Jan. 5, 1944, in Italy.
“We were fighting, and it was getting dark,” Cisneros recalled.
When the Germans burned the train depot for more light, hot shrapnel set Cisneros’ coat sleeve on fire and mangled his left arm, taking muscle off bone. He was treated at a first aid station and then transported to a field hospital 2 miles from the front.
Cisneros has never been to Washington, D.C., and was persuaded to apply for honor flight by his youngest daughter, Marilou Krech, 56, who is accompanying him. While veterans fly free, companions pay their way, about $625.
“It makes my heart feel real good that I get to go,” he said.
At 88, Harry Round is one of the younger World War II veterans on Thursday’s honor flight.
Round, of Lake Waukomis in the Northland, began his service in the Army in 1945 when he was 18 after graduating from Lafayette High School in St. Joseph.
“I was all for the war and for defending our country,” Round said. “I had a friend who was killed in the bombing of Pearl Harbor.”
Because he had taken three years of Army ROTC in high school, Round was chosen as a squad leader during basic training and later an instructor for a year.
The Army then assigned him to a federal prison on a hill in Stormville, N.Y., as a military policeman. Some 2,000 service prisoners with long-term sentences for crimes such as murder and bank robbery were housed there. Round was promoted from guarding prisoners to issuing guns and ammunition from the weapons room. He was discharged in 1947.
Round then attended college on the GI Bill and studied accounting. In 1988, he retired after working as an auditor for an oil company, a business agent for a retail clerks union and finally as a business manager for another union.
Round said he had been to Washington, D.C,. a couple of times while in the Army and is looking forward to going back to see the memorials and monuments.
When his grandson joined the Army and was sent to Afghanistan, Round mounted a flag on the front of his house. His grandson came back, and the flag remains aloft “to honor all of our troops everywhere.”
“We were treated like kings,” said Jack Parmerlee, 89, about the May 6 flight of the Heartland Honor Society.
Bands, flag-waving greeters, singing schoolchildren and music from the 1940s heralded their arrival at the airport in Washington and later in the day at Kansas City International Airport.
Parmerlee made the trip with a lifelong friend, Richard Hader, 86.
“We grew up across the alley from each other in the Northeast area,” Hader said.
Parmerlee was a senior when Hader was a sophomore at Northeast High School. After graduating from high school, Parmerlee became a sailor in the Navy, and Hader became a soldier in the Army during World War II.
Decades later, the sailor and the soldier made a pact: If Heartland Honor Flight didn’t choose both of them for the May 6 flight, neither would go.
They both went, and both were deeply moved by the memorials.
Walking around the National World War II memorial, Hader remembers stopping at the Freedom Wall where 4,000 sculpted gold stars are placed. The stars represent 400,000 American lives lost during the war.
Another moment came during “mail call” on the flight back to Kansas City. Heartland Honor Flight arranged for every veteran to receive a packet of cards and letters from relatives, friends and students.
“They knew how much mail call meant to those serving,” Hader said.
Hader was drafted in February 1946 and sent to Seoul, South Korea, where he was in charge of an officers’ ward in a military hospital. He was discharged in March 1947.
Hader’s friend Parmerlee served two terms: one in World War II and one in the Korean War. He was a radio operator in the Navy from 1943 until he was discharged in April 1946. Parmerlee was recalled in 1950 when war broke out in Korea and discharged again in April 1952.
Heartland Honor Flight
Next available flight is Oct. 7.
Honor Flight Network of Kansas City
P.O. Box 46718
Kansas City, MO 64188
Next available flight is Nov. 11.
“Come Fly With Us” Gala Dinner
What: Silent and live auctions to benefit Honor Flight Network of Kansas City.
When: 5 to 10 p.m. Sept. 27
Where: National World War I Museum, 100 W. 26th St., Kansas City
Sponsorships: These range from $100 to $15,000 and are due by Sept. 19.
Tickets: $50 each or $85 per couple. They may be purchased in advance at www.honorflightkc.org or at the door.
Vintage and Hot Rod Car Show
What: The South 71 Cruisers sponsor the Vintage and Hot Rod Car Show to raise money for the Honor Flight Network of Kansas City.
When: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, followed by Elvis Presley music.
Where: Main and Broadway, Peculiar, Mo.
Cost: $10 donation requested to exhibit a vehicle. Raffle tickets and food will be sold.