A crowd of Christ King School students and their parents, as well as students and teachers from Holy Apostles, waited to see their beloved substitute teacher, Don Bernacchi.
As they saw him disembark from the plane Oct. 14 after his honor flight to Washington D.C., they waved their signs and shouted, “Ber-nac-chi! Ber-nac-chi!” in the middle of the Milwaukee airport.
“Holy moly, I had no idea what was going on,” Bernacchi said. “I was flabbergasted.”
Bernacchi, who served as an Air Force commander in Tokyo, Japan, when the war in Korea broke out, attended a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight over the weekend. Stars and Stripes, Inc., is a non-profit organization that seeks to honor all veterans by flying World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans, as well as terminally ill veterans from other conflicts, to see the war memorials in Washington, D.C.
Bernacchi had been asked a number of times to go on an honor flight, and finally caved after prodding from his children.
“It was so humbling to see all the volunteers, all the people that said, ‘Thank you for your service,’ and to see the memorials,” he said. “I’m still kind of in shock at the kind of reception we got.”
After graduating from Messmer High School in 1949, Bernacchi and three of his high school buddies joined the service. He had a scholarship to play basketball in college, but wasn’t ready to go to college yet.
“There wasn’t a lot to do that summer,” he said. “There was nothing going on. The war (World War II) was over.”
Despite the end of the global war, Bernacchi was shipped to Japan to act as a communications operator, commanding air flights and other American planes both before and during the Korean War. He served from 1949-52.
After he returned home, he became a Catholic school teacher, among other jobs.
“I am pretty good at school,” he said with a laugh. “I love (teaching). I’ve been doing it for 54 years.”
An archdiocesan teacher since 1962, he still substitutes at Christ King or Holy Apostles schools when they call. “As long as they call me, I’m willing to go and teach,” he said.
He had no idea he would see some of his students when he returned on Saturday. “I kept saying, ‘Thank you, thank you,’” he said. “I’m just a substitute teacher.”
Not only does he say he’s “just a substitute teacher,” he also claims he’s “just a guy.”
“I didn’t expect much,” he said. “I did what I did and joined the service, just like everybody else.”