When Earl Kunnemann received the call that he was accepted to go on an Honor Flight, he was eager to tell his friends who had already participated in the special trip to Washington, D.C., which helps veterans view the war memorials, including those inspired by their service in World War II.
“It was quite a surprise and it’s quite an honor, after spending three years in the Pacific during World War II. My friend said it’s a really nice trip and told me not to miss it. I guess they are doing everything first class, I’ve heard,” said Kunnemann.
Kunnemann is a resident at Cedarhurst of Collinsville Assisted Living Community. His Honor Flight will depart on September 30, from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport in St. Louis, Missouri.
For the Cedarhurst community, the trip represents a remarkable chance to proudly supper a veteran. Often our team finds itself helping veterans in the process of getting assistance for assisted living through the Veteran’s Administration, or throwing a special party in their honor on Memorial Day, but the Honor Flight is a special way to show how much we value their service to our country.
Recently, Cedarhurst held a Veteran’s Museum Day, where veterans brought pictures, historical items and scrapbooks to share, so everyone could view their history.
“I love to spend time talking with our residents who are veterans about their history. We love to get them up and dancing during special events and just support them in anything they do,” said Kari Lenz, executive director at Cedarhurst of Collinsville.
Cedarhurst is proud to be a part of Kunnemann’s experience, and she will accompany Kunnemann as his guardian on the Honor Flight. For her part, Lenz is excited to be a part of the special event, and she’s not the slightest bit concerned about her role, which includes assisting Kunnemann with his wheelchair for approximately seven miles.
“I am just looking forward to it. I think the world of Earl and I feel honored and blessed to have the opportunity to go as his guardian,” said Lenz.
In addition, Kunnemann’s daughter and niece have arranged to meet him and Lenz in Washington, D.C. to be a part of this heartwarming experience.
“My daughter is in Africa now and my brother’s daughter is in Spain right now, so they will have a lot to tell us when we get there. That will be great,” said Kunnemann. “They can help Kari push me in the wheelchair.”
This once in a lifetime opportunity is possible, because of the Greater St. Louis Honor Flight non-profit organization, which flies veterans, free of charge, to our nation’s capital to view the WWII memorial as well as other memorials that pay tribute to our nation’s service men and women.
Recalling Naval Operations in the Pacific
Kunnemann enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1941 and was stationed on the Oakland Air Force Base and spent time in Alameda, California and eventually Hawaii. He served until January 1946, when he completed his service, as a Chief Aviation Electronic Technician. During his tour, Kunnemann flew to a number of different islands in the Pacific, servicing U.S. military planes, some of which carried high profile citizens.
“President Roosevelt, the Secretary of State and other top people flew into the islands where we operated. We flew in their planes, worked on their planes and checked them out,” said Kunnemann. “We had about 800-900 planes we took care of, including making sure all of the radio and radar equipment was in good working order.”
Kunnemann never went to combat, himself, but he recalled an incident that inadvertently involved combat operations. As Kunnemman remembers, an aircraft support team in a related outfit had left off an important piece of communication equipment from a plane Kunnemann was aboard, resulting in a dangerous misidentification.
“We were shot at by our own Marines, because we didn’t have an IFF antenna on the bottom of the plane to tell the control tower we were a friend;y aircraft, so they took us for an enemy. One of our maintenance men left it off the plane and the tower wasn’t getting the signal. They blacked out the whole island. Our own Marines were shooting at us, until we got out of there and came back in and landed,” said Kunnemann with laughter. “That was about it.”
As Kunnemann anticipates the Honor Flight, he has found himself recalling the names of fallen soldiers he knew who were killed during WWII, including a friend in the Navy who he spent time with every weekend while they were in college together.
“There were two buddies of mine who were brothers, whose names will probably be there (at the memorial). I will be looking for them. My buddy, Rudy, who I went into the service with, we worked together, we were like brothers, his name should be on the memorial. He and his brother were killed. He stepped on a mine on his second trip out one day and was killed,” said Kunnemann.
Anticipating a Day of Excitement
The day of his Honor Flight, Kunnemann and a number of other veterans from all branches of service, will meet at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, where they and their guardians will take flight. The group is slated to arrive in Baltimore, Maryland early in the morning. From there, they will travel by bus to Washington, D.C. The entire trip will be completed in one day. The commercial airliner will leave St. Louis at 6:15 A.M. and arrive back to Lambert at 7:45 P.M.
“We are getting up at two in the morning and will be getting back at eight at night. For someone my age, it is going to be a long day,” said Kunnermann with a chuckle. “I hope I can do this. I’m 93 years old,” he added. “I am excited about it. I just wish I was younger, where I could walk around and not have to depend on someone to push me around in a wheelchair,” he added.
Their first stop will be at the World War II memorial. Then, they will go on to visit the Navy, Korean, Vietnam and Lincoln Memorials. The group will take a drive-by tour of the Women’s Memorial on the way to Arlington National Cemetery, where they will experience the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Before returning home, the veterans will see the Marine (Iwo Jima) and the Air Force Memorials.
The Greater St. Louis Honor Flight was formed to transport veterans, free of charge, to our nation’s capital to view their National War Memorials. Veterans are placed on a waiting list according to specific priorities, with preference given to WWII veterans and terminally ill veterans of all conflicts. All veterans are welcome to apply.
Kunnemann became interested in applying for an Honor Flight after he watched the film “Honor Flight”, which tells the story of four living WWII veterans who were flown to see their memorials, thanks to the generosity of a Midwest community.
“Earl saw the movie that day in our dining room. I knew our regional team would sponsor and pay for a staff member to go as a guardian because the appreciation our organization shows for veterans is tremendous, and with someone like Earl, who has not been to the memorial or been on the Honor Flight, I just knew we could make it happen, said Lenz.
Cedarhurst of Collinsville emphasizes the role veterans play in embodying our organization’s core values. When Lenz inquired about Earl participating, there was no hesitation to support his application.
“Earl told me he had not been, but that it would be wonderful and amazing. I filled out the application, and sure enough, we were accepted,” said Lenz
Lenz began the process of the Honor Flight application the next day after she and Kunnemann talked about it. There were a few snags along the way, but Lenz continued to communicate with the Honor Flight staff until everything was set and they were given the green light to go. Because of her perseverance, Kunnemann will get to participate in a very special day in his honor and she will get to experience it with him.
Lenz is excited to join the Honor Flight, mostly because she has developed a special relationship with Kunnemann. From the beginning, before Kunnemann moved from Chicago to Cedarhurst, and they talked over the phone, Lenz could hardly wait to meet him. She has supported Kunnemann through his transition and has listened and engaged with him. Being heard by someone who cares is something everyone values at any age.
“It is about building relationships. I try to do that with everybody. Some residents are much more open to sharing. Earl is one of those. With certain people, he is much more open to share. I feel like there is a connection and a bond with Earl. We just clicked and hit it off. He is a friendly, outgoing person,” said Lenz.
The Greater St. Louis Honor Flight, a non-profit 501(3)(c), was formed in St. Louis in 2009, by two local women who had a passion for ensuring veterans could go see their memorials free of charge. The St. Louis organization is a part of the larger Honor Flight Network.
The organization was initiated in August of 2005, in Springfield, Ohio, with six small planes carrying 12 WWII veterans. As the waiting list grew, they transitioned from small private planes to commercial aircraft to accommodate as many veterans as possible.
With the Honor Flight Network website estimating that 640 WWII veterans pass away each day, there is a strong motivation to serve as many veterans as possible while the opportunity to do so still exists.