Before Al Brodax, Leroy Kauffmann and Gus Antell parted ways, the three Brooklyn teenagers made a pact: They tore a dollar bill in three pieces, promising to tape them back together and buy celebratory beers after completing their service in World War II.While home on leave in 1945, and still awaiting deployment to Japan, Mr. Antell learned that his two pals had been shot and injured during fighting in Germany, eventually landing them both in a Staten Island hospital. Both men went on to make a full recovery and, over that time, a pair of atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, bringing the war to a close in August 1945.
Once Mr. Brodax and Mr. Kauffmann were well enough, the three friends taped together their pieces of the dollar bill and used it to buy three drinks in a Brooklyn bar.
A short time later, Mr. Antell, now 87 and living in East Hampton, boarded the first American ship that traveled directly to devastated Japan to help the wartorn nation begin its rebuilding.
“That was a war we all wanted to get into,” Mr. Antell recalled during a recent interview. “I didn’t wait to be drafted. I talked my parents into letting me enlist. It was virtually unheard of not to go.”
On Saturday, Mr. Antell joined nearly 70 other World War II veterans from Long Island—among the last surviving members of the “Greatest Generation”—as they exited a Southwest Airlines plane at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where they were greeted by dozens of spectators and “plebes,” or midshipman from the nearby Annapolis U.S. Naval Academy, thanking them for their service. The veterans were on their way to visit, for the first time in their lives, the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., that was unveiled in 2004.
“I had no idea that it was going to be so moving,” said Robert Boris Riskin, 86, a veteran from Sag Harbor who went on the trip. “I was crying half the time.”
The trip was organized through Honor Flight Long Island, the local hub of a national program designed to give World War II veterans, most of whom are now in their late 80s or 90s, the opportunity to see the memorial that is dedicated to them and their fallen comrades. On any given weekend, hundreds of veterans from Honor Flight hubs across the nation make the trip.
Saturday’s flight was extra special for the Long Island branch, which escorted its 1,000th local veteran to Washington, D.C., according to Chris Cosich, the Amagansett resident who founded Long Island Honor Flight. Mr. Cosich, who has traveled on each of the roughly 30 flights that have departed from Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma dating back to 2007, said he founded the local branch to honor his three late uncles, all World War II veterans.
“It’s an amazing thing when you realize how big and how huge this whole thing was and how many lives it affected,” he said of World War II. “They each have their own narrative in a gigantic story of a conflict that engulfed the whole world.”
Mr. Cosich explained that a New England company called Ocean States Job Lots sponsored the most recent flight, as well as a flight the same day from the New England Honor Flight program out of Logan Airport in Boston and a flight from the Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs Honor Flight program out of Green Airport.
The veterans began their day with a motorcycle escort to the Ronkonkoma airport early Saturday morning. That leg of the trip, however, ended on a tragic note as those participating later learned that one of the motorcyclists—Christopher White, 44, of Medford—was struck and killed by a 55-year-old Selden man who was subsequently arrested by Suffolk County Police for driving while his ability was impaired by drugs.
“It was a somber side note to a really, really amazing day,” Mr. Cosich said on Tuesday, adding that he planned to attend the services for Mr. White on Wednesday in Medford.
Once the veterans, who were accompanied by “guardians”—a mix of family members and volunteers—arrived in Baltimore, they traveled by charter bus to the memorial, where former Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed them. After touring the memorial, which is located in the National Mall and features 4,000 gold stars representing the more than 400,000 American lives lost during the war, as well as a reflecting pool surrounded by 56 granite pillars representing all 50 states and America’s territories, the veterans enjoyed dinner and music before catching their return flight home.
Both Mr. Antell and Mr. Riskin said they were moved by the “incredible” greeting and thanks they received from all they encountered on the trip, which all but overshadowed the moment they laid eyes on the memorial.
Mr. Riskin, who was drafted at age 18, said he was fortunate to receive a one-year deferment because he was attending Brooklyn College at the time. He later attended “arduous” basic training in Alabama, and after the war ended, he served as a company clerk for a year in Fort Carson near Colorado Springs.
“It was very emotional,” he said of the Honor Flight experience. “I never shot anyone, and nobody ever shot me. There were other veterans who had been in the heat of the war, and lived through very dangerous times. I felt guilty in a way.”
Mr. Antell enlisted in the Army in 1944 at age 17. He attended Officers Training School, where he became an infantry officer. He left for Japan in September 1945 to take part in the post-war occupation. He learned after the war that had Japan not surrendered prior to his arrival, his infantry division would have taken part in an invasion dubbed “Operation Downfall” and that massive American casualties were expected.
“The guys were always delighted that they dropped the bomb,” Mr. Antell said. “We were always on that side, down to the present day.”
He recalled that his pay starting out as an Army private was $50 a month, and increased to about $165 a month while he was overseas. After the war, Mr. Antell attended Brooklyn College, Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles. He spent 30 years teaching social studies in New York City. He and his wife, Diane, have one daughter and two grandchildren, and have lived in East Hampton since 1989.
Mr. Riskin, who had two children with his late wife, Kiki, an East End artist, attended the University of Michigan after the war, and had a retail business while pursuing a career in writing. He has published a mystery-thriller, short stories and a novel. His family moved to Sag Harbor full-time in 1990.
Bernard Wesnofske, a Hampton Bays resident who was accompanied on Saturday’s trip by his son, Jeff, served in World War II as an Air Force pilot. He spent two years overseas in Europe. The trip, he said, brought back the somber memory of the death and burial of one of his crewmen on the fourth flight of his combat career.
He also recalled the race to capture the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine River in Germany, near the village of Remagen, the only crossing that the Nazis had not succeeded in destroying to deter Allied troops from advancing. “I can still picture the bombs missing the bridge,” Mr. Wesnofske, 90, recalled this week.
He later went on to become an attorney after the war. It was his daughter, Lauren Wesnofske, who organized his participation in the Honor Flight. “To me, I found it very enjoyable and educational,” he said.
Virginia Bennett, the deputy director for community services in Southampton Town Hall, is the “heartbeat of the program,” Mr. Cosich explained. Both said they were grateful to have developed a partnership with the town, which allows Ms. Bennett to organize the trips from her office. They supplied each veteran with a program that listed a brief biography, including the military service, of each veteran, which Mr. Riskin, Mr. Antell and Mr. Wesnofske all said they enjoyed.
“There’s always one moment in the day—at least one—where it hits you so profoundly what they’ve done for us and that’s when the waterworks start,” Ms. Bennett said.
Mr. Cosich added that the World War II veterans represent the American spirit of sacrifice, selflessness, courage and honor.
“Had it not been for them, we could be speaking a different language, and they’re leaving us quickly,” he said. “Our living, breathing history, the ones that you can just talk to, at best, we have five or six years before all of it is relegated to history books and things we read.”
He added that he plans to continue the flights until every World War II veteran on Long Island has had a chance to make the trip, though the clock is ticking.
“They’re in the last chapter of their lives, and perhaps the last paragraph of the last chapter,” Mr. Cosich said. “We want to make sure they don’t fade away without a thank you.”