SAVOY — World World II veteran Thomas Casale of Champaign says he is thrilled to get the chance to see the World War II Memorial in Washington this week as part of an Honor Flight.
Casale, 89, was an enlisted man in the Army Air Corps, U.S. Army Air Forces and U.S. Air Force who began the war in North Africa and finished the war in Fairbanks, Alaska. By war's end he had been promoted to master sergeant.
"I was really elated when I found out I was going to be on an Honor Flight," he said.
Casale is among 72 World War II veterans who are scheduled to take a charter flight out of Willard Airport on this morning for a two-day trip to the nation's capital as part of the Central Illinois Honor Flight program.
Central Illinois Honor Flight offers free flights to Washington to World War II veterans to commemorate their service and sacrifices during the war, according to organizer Don Niehart of Effingham.
"This is our way of giving back to those people who have served us so well," Niehart said.
Niehart said this week's event marks the 19th Honor Flight from Central Illinois, but only the second one flying out of Willard Airport
Jill Knappenberger, 93, of Champaign, said she operated a Clubmobile with the American Red Cross during the war.
"We were morale builders on the front line, serving coffee, doughnuts, cigarettes and chewing gum to the combat troops," she said. "Eisenhower started the Clubmobiles to help the homesick combat troops. We were very mobile, and we moved with the troops."
Knappenberger spent the war touring with the Clubmobile in England, Normandy, Brittany and Bastogne, and she said she was on the scene during the Battle of the Bulge.
"We were shot at for six days," she said.
David Opperman, 88, of Savoy served as a weather forecaster for the Navy during World War II and the Korean War.
"Going on the Honor Flight is a great opportunity for me," Opperman said.
"I'm really looking forward to it."
Niehart said it is very gratifying accompanying the veterans as they tour various sites, including the World War II Memorial, the Lincoln, Korean War and Vietnam War memorials, Arlington National Cemetery and the Navy, Air Force and Marine war memorials.
"It's an awesome feeling," he said. "If not for these ladies and gentlemen, I might not be here today, and, if I was here, I wouldn't be speaking English."
This time the veterans will also go on a tour of the Capital and the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, where they will see the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic weapon that destroyed Hiroshima.
Veterans will be accompanied by guardians, volunteers who pay their own way. Niehart said there are 450 people on a waiting list to serve as a guardian.
The flight is scheduled to return to Willard Airport at 7 p.m. Thursday.
"We're encouraging as many people as possible to come to give these veterans the welcome home they didn't receive after the war," Niehart said.
People are asked to park at the Flightstar parking lot. Niehart said volunteers will direct well-wishers to where the veterans will be greeted.
Niehart said four more Central Illinois Honor Flights are planned this year, with another flight originating from Willard Airport in mid-October.
Veterans interested in that flight should call Niehart at 254-2986.