by Nancy Donohoe
My dad, Leno Santacaterina, turned 90 in June. His life has been pretty full so far – married for 66 years to my mom, five children, nine grandchildren and three great grandchildren, with another on the way.
He was born in Turin, Italy, and came to the US – to Chicago – when he was a child. Just as his family arrived, the Depression hit. He grew up speaking Italian and English, and watched as his parents developed their careers while they still managing to reach out to the many friends and relatives who arrived from the old country. They first made their home in the Roseland neighborhood, then moved further north to Austin.
When WWII broke out, Dad was too young to volunteer or be drafted, but by 1944 he was in the Army. Starting out at Ft. Belvoir in Virginia, he was then sent to Camp Beale in California. He ended up in the Philippines as part of the Pacific Occupation in September of 1945 where he worked on pontoon bridges used to transport prisoners by truck from Luzon to Corregidor. He returned to the states in December and spent the following year as basic training instructor back at Ft. Belvoir.
About five years ago, I heard about a wonderful organization called Honor Flight Chicago. A close friend had arranged for her own father to participate in their program and I decided to check it out for Dad. Honor Flight arranges for WWII and Korean War veterans (and soon Vietnam vets) to travel to Washington, D.C. and visit the different war memorials. They participate in a WWII commemoration ceremony at the memorial, share experiences with other veterans and – most of all – are thanked again and again for their service to our country.
Dad wasn’t too keen on making the trip when I first approached him about it. But in the past few years, my mom’s health has deteriorated significantly and my siblings decided a full-court-press was in order to get him to agree. Getting him out of the house on a regular basis has become a top priority, in order to give him a break from the demanding job of caring for Mom.
After going through the application process, Dad was invited to make the trip on July 13. I completed guardian training and was honored to accompany him.
The Honor Flight Chicago organization thinks of everything. All veterans who participate go as an honored guest, paying nothing for the flight, food or ground transportation. As the director explained, “Veteran money is no good from the moment they arrive at the airport until they return home.”
It was a long but exhilarating day. We arranged for a limo to pick us up at my parents’ home in Elmwood Park at 3 a.m. in order to arrive at Midway by the designated time of 4 a.m. Neither my dad nor I slept much in anticipation of the early wakeup call, but we were both excited as we climbed aboard the black SUV and made our way down Harlem to the Eisenhower. Dunkin’ Donuts, gas stations, a few laundromats and a 24/7 health club seemed to be the only establishments open at that time and the lack of traffic made the trip a fast one. I thought we would be too early but as we pulled up to the gathering area, dozens of volunteers in bright orange shirts were already helping veterans into wheelchairs and into the staging area.
Dad wasn’t too excited about being in a wheelchair, but the Honor Flight people explained that they provide a portable seat for all the veterans and that there is very little seating at the memorials. Knowing that everyone would be using a wheelchair changed his mind.
Four a.m. anywhere might seem like a quiet time, but Honor Flight was well into the process of photographing all the veterans, distributing nametags, shirts, boarding passes and arranging for medical volunteers to coordinate their efforts and for ground volunteers to help transport everyone to the gate. In addition to my Dad, I was also the “ground guardian” for two other vets. Once we arrived at the departure area, the vets had coffee, donuts and were treated to the “Andrew Sisters” singing top hits from the 40s. For a final sendoff, Wayne Messmer sang the Star Spangled Banner and everyone joined in on God Bless America – all to the surprise and pleasure of Midway’s other travelers.
We boarded the plane and by 7:30 we pulled away from the gate. There were 107 veterans, several family guardians, more volunteer guardians, a medical crew, Honor Flight staff and volunteers all on the Southwest plane. The captain and flight crew gave a warm welcome to everyone and expressed the first message of appreciation to the veterans. The Chicago Fire Department gave a special salute with a shower from their fire hoses while the plane began its taxi to the runway. As we left the ground in Chicago, a cheer rang out by all on board.
After a more substantial breakfast, some of the passengers chatted with one another and others dozed for a while. Dad has a significant hearing loss and he wears hearing aids, but it is difficult for him to converse with anyone without that person practically yelling. As a result, he is often reluctant to strike up a conversation with others and often “punts” in a dialogue – answering to what he thinks he heard the other person say. The two of us talked with Bob, our seatmate and a Korean War veteran. Flight attendants and Honor Flight staff stopped by to say hello. The weather was clear and before we knew it, we were landing at Dulles around 9:30.
Each vet got off the plane and into a wheelchair. As we hit the terminal, the first wave of welcoming volunteers and participants approached every veteran with a handshake, hug, huge smile and warm words of appreciation. “Thank you for your service,” “Welcome to DC!” “This is your day!” “We are honored to have you here!” were just some of the heartfelt greetings my Dad received as I wheeled him toward the arrival area. He couldn’t get over it.
“Why is everyone thanking me?” he asked.
“Because you are a veteran and you served your country, Dad,” I answered through my tears. It was the first time on the trip that I got really choked up, but it sure wouldn’t be the last. He responded to each greeting warmly, with hugs and smiles, even if he couldn’t hear every word they said. When he saw a child, he really lit up and tousled the little one’s hair or patted him or her on the cheek, saying, “Hey look at this guy here!” or “How ya doin’, champ?” He was so surprised at so many people reaching out to him.
Soon we were aboard the big motor coaches, sharing some lunch and making our way into Washington. Before reaching our first stop, we noticed we had an escort – the DC police department, sirens and lights flashing, helped us maneuver through traffic all the way to the Marine Corps War Memorial. They would be with us for the rest of the day.
At the Memorial, the famous Iwo Jima photograph by Joe Rosenthal has been transformed into a huge, magnificent sculpture. The base of the statue recognizes every Marine conflict in US history, going back to 1775. At this setting, our veterans were saluted for their service with a precision gun demonstration by a team of young Marines. Afterward, many active servicemen in uniform sought out the veterans to shake their hands and express appreciation.
I saw that Dad became rather contemplative as we circled the monument, looking at the name and date of each battle. I knew he was thinking of his late, dear friend Leon, a Marine war hero and Silver Star recipient who had been badly wounded on Guam. I felt Dad was wishing his buddy could have enjoyed an Honor Flight journey as well – or the best would have been to make the trip together.
The next stop was the National World War II Memorial. Opened in 2004, this expansive tribute to all Americans who served in the war, connects the Atlantic and the Pacific arches with a great pool and fountain, surrounded by pillars for every state in the union and US territories, and is located near the Washington Monument, opposite the Lincoln Memorial. The veterans gathered in their wheelchairs in the center for a service remembering their fallen brothers, then paused for a salute after the national anthem was sung.
It was very hot and humid. Every time the sun hid behind a cloud, we all savored the relief. Volunteers made sure all the veterans stayed hydrated and had cool cloths on their necks. Again, people approached us just to shake his hand and say thanks. Often he was overwhelmed and didn’t know what to say. We stopped for a final photo at the Illinois pillar, then made our way back to the bus.
We stopped next at the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials – and got caught in a sudden downpour. I tucked my camera in my shirt and snagged a couple ponchos from volunteers. After wrapping both of us up in what were basically large plastic bags, I sprinted back to the bus, pushing Dad as fast as I could. He was pretty wet and tired but stayed in good humor as we headed off to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, part of the Air and Space Museum.
As it was our last stop, we took our time checking out the Enola Gay, the Space Shuttle Discovery and several aircraft with remarkable histories. Dad enjoyed the visit and was glad for the wheelchair.
Back at Dulles we traversed another gauntlet of well-wishers as we made our way to the gate. Aboard the plane, many tired veterans found their way to a seat and settled in for the flight home. Then, during the middle of the safety spiel, the captain announced we had to wait before taking off, since a severe storm was hitting Chicago. As a priority flight, Southwest did everything to get us off as soon as we could, and sure enough, we landed back at Midway only about an hour and a half late with applause for the pilot and crew and an extemporaneous version of God Bless America.
Even though Dad and I were seated in the middle of the plane, they asked our rows to get off first. I asked Dad if he wanted a wheelchair again and this time he said no. I took his arm and walked with him out of the gate, only to be greeted by a young sailor who took Dad’s other arm and would “stay with us until the end.” It turned out, there were thousands of people waiting for this flight to arrive back home in Chicago – and my entire immediate family was waiting, too. We were met by bagpipers who started the parade through the airport – much to the joy of family, friends and surprised travelers.
As we walked into the terminal, we were met by groups from the Navy, the Army, Hell’s Angels, the Boy Scouts, church groups, school children, and even the Governor! Dad got to shake his hand and once again, incredulity set in – he couldn’t believe how many people were reaching out to him to thank him. He stopped all along the route, shaking hands and accepting thanks, and always stopping for a child. He also kissed a few ladies who greeted him with open arms!
At one point, I could tell he was getting tired, but our vigilant sailor never left his side. “If I knew it was going to be this long, I would have taken the wheelchair,” Dad said at one point. I made sure he had support but the emotional welcome made it difficult for me to take his picture, do much to help him along or even see where we were going.
As we entered the home stretch of the welcome home route through the terminal, I finally spied my family. My sisters, brother, husband, in-laws, grandchildren and many, many friends were reaching out to welcome Daddy back home as an honored US soldier. There were neighbors from River Grove, my siblings’ classmates going back to days at St. Cyprian’s, a close friend who drove all the way in from Grand Rapids just to show his appreciation to a veteran, and of course, all his children. Dad’s elation at the outpouring of love from so many was overwhelming – I don’t think he felt the pain in his knee or soreness in his back – only the joy in his heart. It was an amazing day.
We said good-bye with thanks to our young Naval escort and finally did corral a wheelchair for Dad to make the trip from the terminal to the parking garage. He was pretty tired, but still very excited. As we settled into the car for the trip back to Elmwood Park, I heard a soft, “Ah, Dio mio.” With my husband at the wheel, Dad told him a few of the high points of the day. His hearing aids were starting to give him some trouble so the conversation was a bit disjointed. I knew he was really tired when, as we were nearly home, he told my Irish husband, “girare qua,” which means “turn here” in Italian.
We walked into the condo and it was hard to believe that we had been standing in the same spot, 20 hours earlier. He had only taken a few cat naps throughout the day, his energy fueled by excitement and adrenaline. Now my family’s hero had hit the wall. As much as Dad loves having his kids visit, he was anxious for me to either go home or sleep on the couch. I quickly got his belongings organized and headed for the door.
“Well, Nuncia, today was amazing,” he said as I kissed him goodbye.
“It sure was, Daddy. I’m so glad I got to go with you,” I said.
He kissed me good night and said, “Today was way up there. One of the best days of my life.”
Mine too, Dad. Definitely.
Nancy Santacaterina Donohoe and the entire Santacaterina family are grateful to the Honor Flight Chicago organization for the work they do to honor our service men and women for their contributions to our country. They only ask one thing of those who have made an honor flight: Share the experience and encourage veterans to sign up for the trip. Each year, we lose more and more World War II veterans. This homage to their service leaves a lasting impact and all veterans deserve our appreciation. For more information, go to www.honorflightchicago.org.