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Veterans honored with flight to nation’s capital

By Jackie Lupo

Vietnam War veteran Steve Wittenberg of Ardsley greets World War II veteran Mario Orlando of Irvington at the Westchester County Airport.


REGION — When the Rev. Robert Jones of Irvington left for Westchester County Airport on Nov. 7 to board a plane for Washington, D.C., he was transported back to the end of World War II. Jones, 89, was one of 64 former military aboard last week’s Hudson Valley Honor Flight for war veterans, many of them wearing hats indicating their service affiliation. They boarded buses at Westchester Community College in Valhalla and headed for the airport, flanked en route by a police escort and more than 100 members of motorcycle clubs from this area. “It was like coming back from the war,” Jones said. “You read in the papers about how the parades were, and it was like that all over again. Every time we’d pass a firehouse or the police, they were out in uniform saluting us. It was just so wonderful — I got tears in my eyes.”

In Washington the vets were greeted by U.S. Sen. Robert Dole, a World War II veteran who was wounded in the line of duty in Italy. The Honor Flight veterans toured Arlington National Cemetery and saw the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They visited the World War II Memorial Museum, and, said Jones, “Little kids were coming up and shaking my hand. It was just a wonderful experience, people saying ‘Thank you for your service.’”

“It was a great thrill,” said Frederick Olsson, 95, of Hastings. “Every one of the people working for the flight were so totally devoted to what they were doing.”

Thanking veterans is the whole reason behind the Hudson Valley Honor Flight (HVHF), which has flown veterans to Washington 10 times since 2010. The Hudson Valley chapter is part of the National Honor Flight Network. On each trip, veterans receive a big sendoff at the local airport and another welcome celebration when they return. It’s always an emotional experience for the participants, part of a generation whose numbers are rapidly diminishing. According to HVHF, “Currently, over 550 World War II veterans die every day. Our time to express our thanks to these brave men and women is running out.”

Mario Orlando, 91, of Irvington, said the Honor Flight was “fantastic and really hard to believe. It really humbled me. It gave thoughts of our brothers and sisters that didn’t come back. The people came out in droves; it was just a great day.”

Orlando was 18 when he joined the Navy and found himself on a destroyer that was deployed to escort and protect cargo ships on the North Atlantic. He was then assigned to the Pacific. “We did a lot of patrolling in the Philippines, Leyte Gulf... then we went back to China. I met some great people, and we’ve had quite a few Navy reunions. Most of my buddies are now gone.”

Orlando, a lifelong Irvington resident, returned to the village after the war, and worked for 38 years for Stauffer Chemical in Ardsley, retiring as manager of systems and personnel in 1986. “It’s been a great life,” he said. “My service was something I’ll never forget and the buddies we had were just great... just like brothers.”

Jones, a minister of the Reformed Church in America, said he found the Honor Flight “very satisfying, very moving, and very meaningful to me." He added, "It was an experience I will remember the rest of my life, really.” Jones said the Honor Club volunteers’ treatment of the veterans was “outstanding... the program was so organized, every detail was worked out. I’m handicapped — I can’t walk too well. I’ll be 90 next year. They always had a wheelchair.”

Jones also fought in the South Pacific in the Navy. “We were pushing the Japanese back from the U.S., and back to their own country. There were bitter battles. It was part of my experience and I was very fortunate I was able to get through it.”

After the war, Jones became a journeyman printer and linotype operator, but, he said, “Somewhere along the way, I feel I was called to go into the ministry.” He worked as a chaplain at the Veterans Administration hospital in Wappingers Falls, where he ministered to many Vietnam veterans. He observed that unlike the treatment World War II veterans received from the public when they returned from the war, “The veterans came back and there were no parades. There was a great anti-war movement and they took it out on the veterans.” As a veteran himself and as a chaplain, Jones said, “I feel sorry for them, and certainly understood their anguish.”

Olsson, who has lived in Hastings with his wife, Muriel, since 1962, was in Bermuda working on the engineering crew building Kindley Airfield when he learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the amphibious engineers, but switched to pilot training and became a member of the Army Air Force. Olsson was based in Norwich, England, and flew 30 missions over Germany and France. “We were hit by flak a great deal, but nothing ever crippled my plane,” he said. Film star Jimmy Stewart was his wing commander on a mission for which Olsson was his left wingman, and the right wingman was shot down. “I was right behind them,” he said. “I saw the wing come off. Jimmy didn’t get hit. He was a very nice fellow.”

After the war, Olsson sang in several Broadway shows. He also worked as a master carpenter — a skill that led to a job with a large Broadway scenery shop. From there, he was recruited by the Shubert Organization, the major owner of theaters in New York, and worked as an executive for that entity until he retired at age 91.

Ninety-year-old Dominic Barbera of New Jersey, whose son, Robert, lives in Dobbs Ferry, also served in the Pacific Fleet. “I was on board the USS Sangamon when it was hit by a kamikaze in May, 1945,” he said. Barbera said the crew had just finished loading the ship with ammunition and rockets. “Everything exploded,” he said. “We lost all our planes. We lost about 20 men. A lot of them were injured; I came out of it all right. Men were jumping off the side of the ship. I stayed there.”

After the war, Barbera worked in furniture restoration. On Sept. 8 of this year, he was in a group of kamikaze attack survivors honored at Yankee Stadium. For Barbera, going on the Honor Flight was a “very emotional” experience. “It made me cry,” he said.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


November 13, 2015

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