74 Philly-area veterans escorted to the WWII Memorial in Washington

are Wally Walzak, 88, of Harleysville, with son Rich. The trip Saturday for 74 local vets was part of the Honor Flight program. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
are Wally Walzak, 88, of Harleysville, with son Rich. The trip Saturday for 74 local vets was part of the Honor Flight program. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer (At the WWII Memorial in Washington)
Posted: April 15, 2012

WASHINGTON - Big Fred, that's what they call him. Even at 90, Frederick Shahadi, a D-Day veteran from Wallingford, Delaware County, attracts a certain respect for the way he carries himself as a former Navy captain.

For Michael Hare, a generation younger, talking to Big Fred is like having the conversations he wishes he could have had with his father, James, who died in 1980 of Alzheimer's disease.

"By the time I was growing up," Hare said, "my father couldn't remember anything."

On Saturday, when 74 World War II veterans from the Philadelphia area went on a bus trip to the World War II Memorial, Hare was seated next to Shahadi - officially designated as his escort for the day.

The three busloads of veterans and escorts constituted the first trip sponsored by Honor Flight Philadelphia, patterned on groups in other states that provide free trips to the memorial for any WWII veterans who would like to see it. The Philadelphia group is planning other trips in the months ahead.

Hare is himself a veteran, a Marine who served in the Vietnam War. But he has always been fascinated by the men whom former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw dubbed "the greatest generation." Other escorts included sons, grandsons, and neighbors of the veterans, the youngest of whom was in his mid-80s and the oldest, Henry Cox of Centennial Village in Philadelphia, 103.

On D-Day, Shahadi was a chief petty officer on a Navy minesweeper helping to clear thousands of floating mines that the German military had planted in the English Channel, off the coast of Normandy, to deter an Allied invasion. The mines had to be cleared for U.S. troops to go ashore June 6, 1944.

When another minesweeper hit an explosive off Cherbourg and blew up, his ship had to help pick up survivors, he remembered. "I saw enough death and destruction to last me a lifetime."

The memorial was built too many decades after the war for most veterans to see it.

The Vietnam and Korean memorials already had places of honor in Washington before a largely private fund-raising effort for a WWII memorial began in the 1990s, at the time of 50th anniversary war commemorations.

Only about 3.8 million of the original 16.3 million WWII veterans were living Memorial Day weekend 2004 when the massive, $67.5 million monument was dedicated on the National Mall, halfway between the Lincoln and Washington Monuments.

Thousands of veterans turned out for the ceremony, at which President George W. Bush said of their generation: "They saved their country and, thereby, saved the liberty of mankind." The monument includes a wall of 4,000 gold stars, remembering the estimated 400,000 men and women who died.

From that weekend on, there were calls for all remaining veterans to have a chance to see the memorial.

In 2005, an Ohio doctor led in organizing a trip to Washington, at no cost, for 12 veterans. What became the Honor Flight Network rapidly spread to other states - some so far from Washington that veterans had to take airplanes, and some, like New Jersey, that were close enough for bus trips.

The network has grown so large and active that this month alone, 22 Honor Flight groups, while in Washington, are scheduled to visit Arlington National Cemetery.

Today, 70 years after American entry into the war, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that fewer than 1.7 million veterans are living, including about 94,000 from Pennsylvania and 47,000 from New Jersey.

Honor Flight Philadelphia, coming relatively late in the game, was organized by Andrew Schiavello, 52, of Springfield, Delaware County, who owns a business that distributes its own brand of coffee.

Schiavello is not a veteran, but his father, Dominic, was a Navy medic on the battleship Missouri.

After seeing a TV program about Honor Flight, he called and "they said, 'We've been trying to get a hub from your area for six years.' "

He is trying to get a Pittsburgh group organized. The key, he said, is sponsors. Many of the trip expenses, including a breakfast and after-trip dinner in Drexel Hill, were donated by businesses.

It was a first-class outing all the way. Police with flashing lights even led the bus armada on the highways and through the streets of Washington, congested with thousands of sightseers.

"I want these guys to realize how much they are appreciated and loved - and they are not forgotten," Schiavello said.

In its declining years, the WWII generation has gotten much attention - so much that Bob Davis, 88, of Havertown, suggested some of it ought to be deflected to veterans of other wars. The Korean War is often referred to as "the forgotten war," he noted, and it has taken decades for the nation to give respect to Vietnam War veterans.

He recalled a saying by famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle: "Every man's war is the worst."

And now, he said, America is at war again.

Among the veterans on the trip were four women - three former Navy WAVES and a former Army nurse. Elizabeth Robinson, 91, of Chester Heights, a retired teacher, wore her original uniform tunic with two medals and her rank insignia as a yeoman second class.

Like some veterans on the trip, she already had been to the WWII Memorial. But the difference this time was the attention. Hundreds of people, many from other nations, gawked and shot photos; some stopped to shake hands.

Warren Schlaupitz, 89, of Dover, Del., found himself in conversation with a young Marine taking his wife and two children out for the day.

The Marine noticed the Silver Star that Schlaupitz earned at Corregidor in the Philippines, pinned to his crisp, blue blazer.

"We actually talked about our feelings on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," Schlaupitz said later. "We agreed that it was not a necessary war. It's not like World War II, where we had to fight. ... We're building up another country while our country is falling down."

He was accompanied by his grandson Matthew Messina, 28, also of Dover, who stuck close and listened to every word. For him, he said, it was "just a great opportunity to be with my grandfather."

Contact Tom Infield

at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.

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