Leonard Wasilewski said his friends and fellow veterans have been telling him for years about their one-day, whirlwind trips from Illinois to Washington, D.C. on Honor Flights.
“I’ve been looking at it for years and finally I said this is the year I’m going to put an application in and get on,” Wasilewski said.
He found the application form on the website for Greater Peoria Honor Flight and “punched it in on the website.”
And he’s glad he did.
“I liked the whole thing,” he said.
After breakfast on the plane after the early-morning flight, the veterans arrived in Washington, D.C., where greeters as well as people who “were waiting for their planes to go somewhere” were cheering, waving flags and shaking hands as the veterans walked or rode in wheelchairs.
“It was like walking through a tunnel of people,” he said.
The Peru man appreciated seeing the changing of the guard and unknown soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, the World War II monument, Lincoln Monument and nearby Vietnam War and Korean War monument. He also was impressed by less famous landmarks, such as the Three Brothers Monument and a monument to honor the nurses that served in Vietnam.
He received a pleasant surprise during the flight, when the Honor Flight crew had “mail call.” Friends, family and students from Parkside School provided letters to him, he said.
Arriving back in Peoria after 9:30 p.m., his wife, family, sister “Susie” Zokal and about 600 people in all were at the airport to welcome the veterans back.
“It was really a surprise and really made me feel good,” he said.
During the flight, Jeff Kopacz of Davenport, Iowa, served as the guardian for Wasilewski. Kopacz is Wasilewski’s relative, and he became interested in serving as a guardian because his father (now deceased) was a prisoner of war, having served at Bataan during World War II.
Kopacz’s niece is serving at Great Lakes Naval Air Station and presented Wasilewski with a flag that was flown over the base, where Wasilewski had gone for training.
Zokal said she was the baby in the Wasilewski family — “My mother sent him my birth announcement when he was in the service. I was born in 1956,” said Zokal. She also had brothers who served in Korea and Vietnam.
Leonard Wasilewski served in the Navy from 1955 until October of 1961, between wars.
“They were just sending advisers to Vietnam when I got out,” he said. “I was an optical man … my main job was to fix and overhaul submarine periscopes … gun sights, binoculars.
The work was tedious.
“We used to turn one around about once a week. They’re 42 feet long. We’d pull them out of the submarine, put the spare down into the hole and take them to the shop,” he said.
He served on the USS Nereous, an auxiliary ship assigned to taking care of two squadrons of submarines in San Diego.
“Then one night at about 2 a.m. they wake me up and said you have to go to Submarine Base Pearl Harbor,” he said. The repair crew had fallen behind on their work. “I was there for four months. I worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week — not much time to monkey around. I asked the chief of the shop if I could go down to Waikiki Beach so I can go there to see it if somebody asks me what it looks like.”
He later served on the destroyer tender Shenandoah in Norfolk, Va.
Craig Sterrett can be reached at (815) 220-6935 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NT_NewsEditor.