Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell accompanied 87-year-old Carmel resident Mario Antoci, a World War II Army veteran and former POW, on a Hudson Valley Honor Flight (HVHF) to Washington, DC on Saturday, April 20. The pair joined approximately 88 other vets along with their guardians and several HVHF staff members.
“It was a long day but went so fast and was so well organized. It went like clockwork,” said Odell.
The day was one Antoci will never forget.
“I can never repay MaryEllen for choosing me for the Hudson Valley Honor Flight to Washington, DC,” said Antoci. “I have never experienced anything like it. This was the one of the best days of my life.”
The day started bright and early as the travelers checked in at 7 a.m. and boarded Leprechaun buses in Montgomery. A convoy of police and motorcyclists accompanied the buses to Stewart International Airport. There a welcoming reception was held for the members of the Greatest Generation and onlookers cheered for and thanked their hero veterans. Sharply at 10 a.m. the US Airways Charter Flight took off headed for Reagan National Airport.
The veterans’ day-long trip included stops at the WWII Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery where they watched the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Odell said everywhere they went the veterans, who wore military caps designating their military branch or WWII status, were greeted by the public who were also visiting the historic sites.
Antoci, who served from 1944 to 1946 as a member of the 7th Army’s 63rdInfantry Division and spent his final five months in the military as a prisoner of war in Germany, was asked by a young visitor to the WWII Memorial how he was captured and came to be a POW.
“Well, we were overrun by the Germans,” he replied.
In 2006, Antoci wrote an account of his wartime experiences in a journal he titled, “Hey Dad, What Were You Doing on Your 18th Birthday?” In it, he recounted being captured along with two other soldiers, interrogated briefly and then “loaded in cattle cars” and “packed so tight that if you tried to fall you couldn’t; you stayed in a standing position.”
Odell said many of the veterans were willing to speak of their war experiences that day.
“Perhaps they spoke of their experiences because they were among each other and more relaxed but I also think they realized it had to be. They had to tell their story because they were taking ownership of the fact that they are part of our history and it was okay to talk about what they had done. I think they were at peace that day.”
The trip was the second flight sponsored by HVHF, a local chapter of the National Honor Flight Network. The group raised approximately $50,000 necessary to cover the costs of air and ground transportation as well as food for the travelers. Each veteran was accompanied by a guardian who paid his or her own way at a cost of approximately $400.
“We have to do more of these flights and we have to do them quickly,” said Odell. “We lost two veterans who were scheduled to be on this flight just two weeks before we took off. I think that was why Mario and I were able to get on this flight.”
The next HVHF is scheduled to take place in September.