Brooklyn Heights

National Honor Flight to fly 50 NYC veterans to DC on April 29

April 12, 2017 By John Alexander Brooklyn Daily Eagle
World War II veteran Harold Simmons (center) is surrounded by his family. From left: Curtis Simmons, Cassandra Simmons and Sharon Simmons. Eagle photos by John Alexander

A salute to the heroes of the greatest generation

The Big Apple Honor Flight will make its maiden voyage from NYC to Washington, D.C. on April 29. The flight will carry 50 veterans from the New York City area, most of who served in WW II, for a day-long visit to the country’s capital to visit landmarks such as Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the World War II Memorial.

On Sunday, April 10, an orientation was held for the veterans at Congregation Mt. Sinai Synagogue at 250 Cadman Plaza West. They were accompanied by family members or guardians who would be joining them on their journey to the capital. The orientation included a meet and greet and a performance by Master Sgt. Mary Kay Messenger, a gifted vocalist who serenaded the soldiers and their families with songs from the war years.

Big Apple Honor Flight Vice Chairman and Co-Founder Brian Maher and his wife Becky hosted the event and welcomed guests. Maher explained that the orientation was set up so that the veterans could meet and get to know each other, share their stories and learn the details of what to expect on the flight, which will be taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport.

We have Pearl Harbor survivors, we have concentration camp liberators, we have soldiers who were at D-Day, Guadalcanal, Iwo-Jima, individuals who were in some of the most important battles in WWII,” Maher said.

He then thanked Toba Patosky, president of the Cadman Park Conservancy/Brooklyn War Memorial, who helped recruit a majority of the veterans for this flight from Brooklyn. Potosky has been instrumental in rehabbing the WW II Memorial at 195 Cadman Plaza West.

WW II veteran Rocco Vanasco with Toba Patosky, president of the Cadman Park Conservancy/Brooklyn War Memorial.

Among those attending was Seymour Kaplan, now 92, who was 17 years old when he helped liberate Dachau concentration camp on April 29, 1945. Kaplan told the Brooklyn Eagle, “It’s just so nice to see so many guys here who were kids when I was a kid.” The Honor Flight marks the anniversary of that day 73 years ago.

Seymour Kaplan, who helped liberate Dachau concentration camp during WW II.

Veteran John Cortese Sr., 92, was there with his son John Jr. He told the Eagle, “I don’t think about myself. It’s the ones who never came back that I think about. I mean, God was good to me. I’m 92 and I didn’t think I was going to live to be 21 when I was in Normandy and I saw what was going on. I thought, ‘I’m not going to be 21.’ But I was lucky and God was good. I almost lost my life six or seven times, but I prayed, ‘Please God, not now,’ and He listened to me.”

WW II veteran John Cortese with his son John Cortese Jr.

Another war hero, Harold Simmons, 92, was born and raised in Williamsburg. “I reminisce about those days all the time, I was stationed in the Philippines,” he told the Eagle. “We were there first when they chased [General] MacArthur out of there. He said, ‘I shall return,’ and I returned with him and we made it. We made it.”

Maher explained that the organizers of this flight are from the Hudson Valley Honor Flight and several other Honor Flight organizations. And together they’ve organized 15 flights throughout the state. They are part of the National Honor Flight network which has more than 100 hubs throughout the entire country and has taken hundreds of thousands of WW II veterans on honor flights over the last ten years.

Big Apple Honor Flight Vice Chairman Brian Maher with WW II veteran Seymour Kaplan.

Maher thanked sponsor realtor Jeff Gural of Newmark Holdings who helped raise funds for the flight and donated his own money to the effort. He also thanked key players including independent filmmaker Joe Allen, who is making a documentary about the flight; Bay Ridge Boy Scout Troop 13, who presented the colors; state Sen. Marty Golden; and the United War Veterans Council.

Master Sgt. Mary Kay Messenger serenades veteran Harold Simmons.

Master Sgt. Mary Kay Messenger performed poignant renditions of 1940s favorites “Sentimental Journey,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “God Bless America.” She sang to the soldiers and even danced with a few, including Harold Radish, a prisoner of war who was held for four months on the border of Germany and France.

The orientation brought a remarkable group of combat veterans together for the first time. After hearing their heartfelt stories, many in the room shared some tears, some laughter, but mostly pride for these true heroes who sacrificed so much so long ago.

Veterans sign in to orientation for the Big Apple Honor Flight.

Event leaders Steve Nicoli and Nichole Rohas.