100_9066Bernie Flatley, left to right, Ed DePreter and Tom Goss first met as members of Holy Family Parish, Whitefish Bay. Now residents of The Milwaukee Catholic home, the trio took a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight to Washington D.C., a free day trip with meals for World War II vets. (Submitted photo courtesy the Milwaukee Catholic Home)MILWAUKEE — When Tom Goss woke up early Saturday morning on April 16, he carefully dressed in his Honor Flight jacket, and waited near the front door of The Milwaukee Catholic Home at 3:35 a.m. He looked like an eager child waiting to open his Christmas gifts.

His best buddies, Ed DePreter and Bernie Flatley were not far behind, and equally as anxious to fulfill their final mission. The men first met as members of Holy Family Parish in Whitefish Bay.

The three men and 397 other World War II veterans along with 400 guardians from Wisconsin spent the day in the nation’s capital visiting monuments and memorials. The highlight of the excursion for DePreter, and what started tears flowing in his eyes, was the World War II Memorial that was completed in 2004.

“I was pretty choked up by that and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” he said. “Everything was great, absolutely great. It was a very tiring day, but probably less tiring for me than a lot of the people; regardless of the fact that I am 86, I am very active. But, my friends who were not quite as active and rely on the wheelchairs really were pooped.”

Like most of the veterans, DePreter waited more than a year for a seat on a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, which provides a free day trip with meals to Washington, D.C., for World War II veterans. The group left Mitchell International Airport early in the morning and returned to Milwaukee late that evening, spending the day visiting the Iwo Jima Memorial, Air Force Memorial, World War II Memorial, Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery to watch a changing of the guard ceremony.

Strategic planning led to final mission

It was one final mission requiring incredible strategic planning to pull it off. Goss’s son Tim registered the three best friends for the flight last September, after his mom became interested in the Honor Flight program after learning about it from the Charlie Sykes radio show.  

Untitled-1Bernie Flatley, bottom, Ed DePreter, left, and, Tom Goss, right, all fought in World War II. Goss’s son, Tim Goss, registered the three best friends for the Honor Flight last September. Seven months later, they fulfilled their final mission by being part of the group of 400 who spent a day in the nation’s capital. (Submitted photos)“My dad is a Korean War disabled Marine bomber vet and Bernie and Ed were both bomber crew members for the Army Air Force,” he said. “My dad was so excited for this trip that he got ready to go in just 15 minutes, despite having an artificial leg. When I went to check on the other two, I was thrilled to discover that they were all up and ready by 3 a.m. and buzzing with excitement.”

To tourists visiting the monuments, the names on the stones may not hold great meaning, but for the hundreds of World War II veterans, the names etched into the concrete are permanent reminders of losing close friends, blood spilled into the earth, loss of youthful innocence and fighting to retain American freedom.

For First Lieutenant DePreter, who volunteered for the draft in 1943, and served in the 96th Bomb Group, AAF Station 138, at Snetterton Heath in East Anglia, England, it was an opportunity to remember the 30 missions flown to Germany and France and those men who touched his heart.

“There was a man named Emmett Brown who asked if anyone on our crew (was) Catholic,” he said. “I told him that I was and he gave me a cross from a rosary that was handed down to replacement crews. I put it on my rosary and carried it with me for 30 missions. There was no replacement group after me, so I kept it and still carry it in my pocket.”

Bernie Flatley, 87, was drafted when he was 17. He served as an engineer gunner in the 464th bombardment group in the 15th Air Force and was stationed in Italy. He flew in 51 missions – well above the usual 30. His missions primarily targeted German controlled oil fields in Ploesti, Romania. He also flew to Germany and other locations, and discharged from the Air Force as a technical sergeant.

Before World War II began, Tom Goss, 87 joined the U.S Marine Corps and was stationed in the South Pacific on Green Island. He bombed islands in the Philippines during his missions. He participated in dive-bombing missions during the Korean War using a new Corsair airplane. He retired from the Marine Corps as a major.

Guardians are unsung heros

The Stars and Stripes Honor flights began in Wisconsin several years ago, and have become immensely popular. The organization raises money to take veterans on flights while they can still travel. With more than 1,000 World War II veterans dying daily, the organization is ramping up its fundraising efforts to bring more veterans to Washington. To ensure the comfort and safety of everyone, each veteran is assigned a personal guardian.

According to Tim Goss, the guardians are the unsung heroes of the trip.

“Each guide pays for (his) own flights, and they are not cheap – they pay $500 and believe it or not, there is a waiting list to go on the flights,” he said. “In fact, these men are dying to give their $500 to take somebody. It is a chance to give the veterans the respect they deserve.”

04-15-11-CHN-03World War II veteran Ed De Preter, right, with nephew Mark Maierle, left, of Greendale, and former Wisconsin Governor (1970-77) Patrick Lucey, a resident at Milwaukee Catholic Home and an Army Captain, listen to the MCH choir at a send off party for World War II vets at the Milwaukee Catholic Home in Milwaukee on Friday, April 15. View or purchase more photos from this event. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)When Mike Broker learned about the Honor Flight program a couple of years ago, he thought it was a tremendous opportunity to serve as a guide with his son and say thank you to the men and women who served our country.

“They are truly ‘the greatest generation,’” he said. “My father served in World War II and my son David, 23, was named after my father. I wanted to make sure that he, like every other person his age should understand who these few remaining people are and what they did to ensure the life we unfortunately take for granted.”

Despite the rainy weather, the veterans began their day seeing the World War II Memorial and were greeted by Oconomowoc resident Vice Admiral Dirk Debbink, Chief of Naval Reserves.

“From there we saw the Korean Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the U.S Marine Memorial also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, then the Air Force Memorial and finally, Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” explained Broker. “I think it was a positive experience for them and I am sure it brought back many memories. I couldn’t help but wonder later that weekend, if they were remembering the truth about war or the romanticized version that we see in the movies. I am sure they have remembered both the past 70 years.”

Travelers return to emotional welcome

While the day was a blur for many of the veterans, due to their age and health conditions, the reception they received upon arrival at Mitchell Field will likely remain embedded in their hearts.

“As far as I am concerned, they could have sat on the plane all day and bypassed the trip to D.C. The greeting these guys received at Mitchell Airport was one for the ages. Scores of people – many who had no family on the trip, were there to show their love and appreciation,” said Tim. “The place was packed; 15 rows deep on one side of the cordoned parade path and plenty more on the other. As I told a friend, I felt that it could have been a crowd to greet The Beatles.”

As the veterans exited the concourse to the main lobby while music played, the crowd applauded and shouted and waited patiently to shake the hands with the veterans.

“As I wheeled my father through the procession, I could only cry and say ‘Thank you’ over and over,” Tim said. “We were all united there in our love and support for these men who had saved our nation and who helped preserve the utmost appreciation for humanity on a global basis. It was an emotional thing to behold. Most of these men are in their very last years of life and this was, most likely, their final moment in the sun.”

Stepping off the plane and into the airport terminal, Broker was unsure what to expect for he had heard the experience was unlike anything he could imagine, but he had no idea, how incredible, until a Scottish band welcomed them to the airport.

Alexian Village residents also make the trip

Two residents, Joe Bauer and Virginia Awe, from Alexian Village, Milwaukee, also traveled on the April 16, Stars and Stripes Wisconsin Honor Flight.

“We are honored to have United States Military veterans living at Alexian Village. It was a very rewarding and emotional day for Joe and Virginia,” said Gary Mohn, CEO of Alexian Village. “We have great respect and gratitude for all of the people who have served our nation in the military and I thank them for their service.”

“Further up the concourse, there were men dressed in all of the wartime uniforms from every branch of the military, saluting every veteran,” he said. After that, came the men and women currently serving; they were saluting and shaking hands welcoming them home and thanking them for their service to our country. This is where the tears started to flow! From there, we were channeled through a narrow path that is cordoned off from the crowds allowing the vets to shake hands with people on both sides. This took a long time and maximized the ‘coming home parade’ so to speak. Toward the end of the parade, the family members were there to greet them with hugs and kisses.

My vet, Bernie seemed to be a natural around people, so he was definitely in his element shaking everyone’s hand, smiling and accepting kisses from every woman he came upon! Tom was more reserved, but he also shook many hands and seemed to be more at ease once he spotted his family.”

Milwaukee Catholic Home saluted its heros

Behind the scenes, the Milwaukee Catholic Home supported and encouraged the three men to partake in the Honor Flight, explained Tim.

“They got this trip going in full force and arranged a packed going away party, and showed one of the DVDs I made about the careers of each of the three men,” he said. “The Catholic Home went over the top and when the guys came back, they honored them with a welcome home celebration and showed all three of the DVDs from start to finish.”

While DePreter remembers every aspect of the trip, including the vast amount of food given to them, the best part was feeling appreciated by the public when they came home to Milwaukee.

“I felt like a celebrity because there were so many people there, even little children and babies – it was so late, I couldn’t believe so many people waited for us,” he said. “It just made me cry. In my lifetime, I have cried a lot, from losing my friends in the war, to losing my wife, and then, my only son. It made me feel good to feel so appreciated, it has been so long and we didn’t really have that feeling of appreciation before.”