For World War II pilot, not just another flight: Northland's second Honor Flight headed to D.C.
World War II veteran Al Cismowski is looking forward to making the Northland's second Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., this week. So much so that the former U.S. Army Air Corps pilot jokes that he will help fly the chartered plane if necessary.
"I'm sure it's going to most enjoyable," Cismowski, 90, said last week. "It's something I wouldn't be able to do on my own."
Ninety-seven veterans -- almost all who served in World War II -- are scheduled to fly out of Duluth International Airport at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday. They will return to a heroes' welcome sometime after 10 p.m.
Accompanying them are about 65 guardians paying their own way, medics and support staff.
Cismowski piloted a two-engine Douglas C-47 military transport during the war.
"I supplied (Gen. George) Patton all the way across northern France with supplies from England," he said. "I made 100 trips across the English Channel. I brought ammunition in to Patton and brought back the wounded to England."
"Our organization moved close to Paris toward the end of the war and I towed two gliders full of troops over the Rhine River in the last big push," he said.
Cismowski also made four trips to Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge, dropping supplies to American troops surrounded by Germans. The small size of the drop zone required him to fly low and slow, resulting in one of the three occasions he didn't think he was doing to make it.
"We went in at 400 feet to drop the supplies," he said "We got shot at going in and coming out. I had to force land; the plane was full of bullet holes."
An accident on the ground and engine trouble during a flight near the St. Lawrence River accounted for the Cismowski's other close calls.
"I was headed for the ocean with no power on two engines" (on a two-engine plane), he said. "Fortunately I got one engine going and I got back to the base."
Like many veterans, Cismowski doesn't consider himself a hero.
"I consider myself a lucky participant in the war," he said. "There were three occasions when I didn't think I was going to make it. I guess I'm back by the grace of God."
It takes thousands of hours of volunteer labor and fundraising to organize each honor flight, Northland Honor Flight board member Judy Greske said.
Greske was introduced to Honor Flight last year when she flew on one from Rochester, Minn., as a Gold Cross paramedic. She remembers the emotions and gratitude she saw on the faces of the veterans.
"As I was coming home I thought, 'This is something we need to do,'" she said.
When she got back to Duluth, she made contact with Don Monaco and others working to form a Northland Honor Flight hub.
The goal of the nonprofit Honor Flight Network is to take veterans -- at no cost to them -- to Washington, D.C., to tour the memorials to their service and sacrifice. The first Honor Flight of six small planes carrying 12 World War II veterans from Springfield to Washington took place in May 2005. A total of 137 veterans were flown to Washington that year. By the end of 2010, Honor Flight's from 105 hubs in 34 states had transported 63,293 veterans to Washington. First priority is given to World War II veterans and veterans from later wars who are terminally ill.
The Honor Flight Northland Hub's first flight happened on May 14, taking 103 veterans to Washington, D.C.
"It was exceptionally heartwarming just to see the reaction of all the veterans and how much they appreciated the opportunity," Monaco said. "I was really touched by their reactions to what we were able provide for them."
Other commitments kept Honor Flight Northland board member Durbin Keeney from making the May flight. He's looking forward to being on Tuesday's flight.
"As a guardian or a staff member or whatever, it is an honor just to have the opportunity to be with these heroes," he said.