My Honor Flight

Posted on 28 February 2015


Recently, I received a phone call from a friend and comrade-in-arms, Len Nowak, asking me if I would be interested in visiting our nation’s capital on June 7, 2014.  He told me the trip was sponsored by an organization named Honor Flight that would be transporting approximately 90 World War ll veterans from Southern New Jersey to Washington, DC.  After some consideration, I agreed and filled out the necessary paperwork that the organization required.


Being an investigative reporter by nature, I was curious to discover the origin of this organization that was honoring veterans.  To my surprise, I came across a fascinating story of one man’s dream to honor and respect the men and women who have served, fought, and died defending our country.


The story begins with Captain Earl Morse, a physician’s assistant with the United States Air Force who retired after 27 years of service in 1998.  After his retirement, he was hired by the Department of Veterans Affairs to work in a clinic in Springfield, Ohio, and it was here that he would meet aging veterans and treat them for various ailments.  During his tour of duty in the clinic, he gained much respect and admiration for his patients and wondered if there was anything else he could do that would make their lives more complete.


On the Memorial Day weekend in May 2004, the long-awaited World War II Memorial was completed and dedicated to the men and women that served, fought, and died during that conflict.  The dedication was hosted by Senator Robert Dole and other dignitaries including actor Tom Hanks who was instrumental in fundraising for the Memorial and was introduced as Captain John Miller, the character he played in the motion picture “Saving Private Ryan.”


Earl’s patients at the clinic often spoke of their Memorial and their desire to visit it someday.  From that desire was born an idea that would make that dream a reality.  A private pilot and member of the national aero club located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, Earl decided to fly some of his patients to realize their dreams of visiting the World War II Memorial.  Quickly realizing that the limited seating of his plane could not nearly meet the demand of his patients, he decided to ask members of his pilots’ association at Wright-Patterson airfield for their assistance.  He explained that those who would volunteer their help would not charge or receive any compensation or reimbursement for their efforts or expenses and that these same volunteers would serve as the personal escort for the whole day to those whom they would transport.  From 150 association members, eight stepped forward to offer their services.  This would be the beginning of Honor Flight.


The first flight took place in May 2005 when six small aircraft flew out of Springfield, Ohio carrying 12 World War II veterans to Washington, DC.  From that small beginning, word spread across the nation and more cities and states joined the Honor Flight.


In September 2006 in Hendersonville, North Carolina, Jeff Miller and other volunteers partnered with US Airways to transport local area veterans to Washington, DC on commercial flights.  This was the beginning of Hendersonville County Honor Air program.  By September 2007, Hendersonville city and county were the first in the nation to fly 100% of their veterans to the Memorial.  Also in 2006, Jeff collaborated with Earl Morse in forming the Honor Flight Network.


In May 2008, Southwest Airlines came forward to donate thousands of free tickets to veterans and was named the official commercial carrier in the Honor Flight Network.  By the end of 2012, Earl’s dream supported and promoted by Jeff Miller and thousands of volunteers provided 98,500 veterans with opportunities to visit their Memorials.


But, the story doesn’t end here.  The Honor Flight Network spread, included among these Honor Flight of Southern New Jersey.  Begun as a community service project for a small group of special needs students at Williamstown High School under the direction of school teacher Pam Pontano, it quickly grew into a school and community wide project.  Mayor Michael Gabbianelli and the Monroe Township Town Council lent their support, as well as businesses and Veteran’s and civic groups from around the area.


Selecting as its motto “You are not forgotten,” Honor Flight of Southern New Jersey remains the first and only Hub of Honor Flight in New Jersey and launched its first “flight” in 2008.  More proximate than many other Hubs to Washington, DC, Honor Flight of Southern New Jersey “flights” are actually free bus trips for World War II and Korean War veterans to our nation’s capital.  Volunteers known as Guardians accompany each veteran to ensure a safe and memorable experience.


On June 7, 2014, I was one of approximately 100 World War II and Korean War veterans who took advantage of the opportunity offered by Honor Flight of Southern New Jersey.  My day began at 4 AM when my buddy Len Nowak and I were picked up by a woman named Mary who escorted us to Washington Township High School.  Arriving at 5:30 AM, we were greeted by a student who directed us to the parking area. Upon entering the high school, we were greeted by more high school students and given an ID card, Honor Flight T shirt, and a drawstring tote bag. We were then ushered into the dining room and served breakfast, after which we donned our T-shirts and awaited the rest of the veterans to arrive.


Each veteran was also assigned a Guardian, who would be the angel on his shoulder for the entire day.  These Guardians were all volunteers who pledged their time and effort to make this program a success. Many of them had to travel considerable distances starting at the crack of dawn to fulfill their duties.


After breakfast the chairperson of the organization, Pam Pontano, led us in the Pledge of Allegiance and introduced the coworkers who would assist her in the day’s operation. This was followed by a marching band and the motorcycle escorts that would lead our bus caravan to Washington, DC.  The band played a medley of military service songs for each branch of service including Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force.  As each song was played, the veterans of those separate organizations arose and were honored.


After the initial ceremonies, we were instructed to start loading the buses.  Before leaving the building, each veteran and his guardian was photographed before going to his assigned bus.  Once loaded, the caravan of four buses and its escorts, under the protection of the Monroe Township Police Department, left the high school area.  At each intersection, we were greeted by uniformed police that stopped traffic and gave a military salute as we continued our journey.  To our surprise, as we motored through the small communities in Monroe Township, local residents were out on the street to wish us well on our journey.


Reaching New Jersey Route 295, our caravan continued with police protection until we reached our destination.  Our first stop was the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.  After a brief visit and photo op, we departed and crossed over the Potomac River into DC.  Along our journey, we passed the Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Memorial.  We then proceeded to a rest area, where we stopped for lunch.


After lunch, we proceeded to the World War II Memorial.  Upon arriving, we all assembled outside our buses and started the trek to the Memorial.  As we approached the Memorial, the pathway was lined with honor guards and visitors cheering us on.  It was like a ticker tape parade; only, without the ticker tape.  I was completely overwhelmed by the response we got.  Once at the Memorial, we lined up for group pictures taken by visitors and news media present.  Never before, even upon my return to the States at the conclusion of World War II, have I received such a welcoming reception!


My next surprise came when my oldest granddaughter Cherene and her family showed up.  I said to her, “WOW I never expected to see my family here.”  She responded, “Pop, we knew you were here, and we wanted to be here to honor you.”  Then, together with my family, I visited the Korean Memorial and the Vietnam War Memorial before returning to my bus for departure.


Once seated in my bus, I and my comrades were greeted with Mail Call.  Each of us was called by name and received his mail just like the old days back during World War II.  We then started the long journey home.  Three and a half hours later, we arrived at Washington Township High School at 7:30 PM, where we were welcomed with the last phase of our journey, a sumptuous dinner.  Before leaving, each of us received a going away gift, a nice carry-on bag filled with something very heavy in it.  Someone suggested it was a six-pack of beer which later proved to be wrong.


It indeed was a long day, but with many fond memories as I shook hands with my guardian and now my new friend, Albert Tessuon who truly was the angel on my shoulder that day, we said farewell.  The next day when I had time I read my mail it was from schoolchildren and students of Williamstown along with members of my own family that were contacted by Honor Flight of Southern New Jersey.  Reading that mail made my day even more memorable. One such letter came from an eighth-grade NCS student in the form of a poem, which I would like to share with you


Dear Veteran

I don’t know who you are;

I don’t even know your name,

But for everything you’ve done

You deserve to be famed

You fought for our country

You risked your life

And it is hard to do so

War is anything but nice

For this you will be recognize

And sent onto Honor Flight

And I sincerely hope

That you will return happy and all right

I would like to extend my gratitude

A true thank you from me

Because without your service

I don’t know what would happen to our country

I cannot imagine what life would be like

I cannot imagine not being me

But for most of all, I can thank only you

For keeping me safe and free


I personally would like to thank the student who took the time to send me this Poem and to all the other people who thanked me for my sacrifices. My response is, “I did it for you.”


I consider being selected for this event a gift, from all the people that participated in this program.  But, it turned out to be a gift that kept giving, as later in the year I received a large poster filled with photos and memorabilia of the event that took place on June 7, 2014.  Speaking for both myself and my brothers-in-arms, this was D-Day for us.


Also I would like to thank the Pontano family, Pam, Ron and Jennifer for honoring me and my brothers-in-arms, and especially Air Force Captain Earl Morse who founded this organization to honor and respect America’s veterans. God Bless You!




Like all organizations Honor Flight of Southern New Jersey, needs funding and volunteers to keep our promise, please visit their website:


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3 Responses to “My Honor Flight”

  1. Julie says:

    Love your story. I see the picture of my father in the bottom picture. I am so glad that they are honoring those who put their lives at risk to serve their country. Thank you for your sacrifice.

  2. Ron Kulig says:

    Tom , love your story . I never pas a vet without thanking them for their service . As a veteran I know the importance of those 5 words , Thank you for your service . I realize the hard ships of war and the time away from ones family . You definitely are the greatest generation . After reading your article I felt like I was on the trip you guys .

  3. James Santigo says:

    Just wish to say your article is as astounding.

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