The last Honor Flight Arizona trip exclusively comprised of World War II veterans took off from Sky Harbor Airport Tuesday, Oct. 18, with one Scottsdale and one Fountain Hills resident on board.
Donning a variety of U.S. military hats, vests and outfits, 15 veterans and nine women from the American Rosie the Riveter Association gathered in the airport terminal before making the three-day trip to visit the WWII memorial in Washington D.C.
Scottsdale resident, retired Army motor sergeant, Jack Shinberg, 94, and Fountain Hills resident, retired U.S. Army Air Corp., radio operator gunner Fred Zelinka, 91, are visiting the memorial for their first time.
The memorial opened on April 29, 2004. Its 56 pillars sits on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Memorial.
Since it’s start in November 2009 the Arizona-entity of the nonprofit group has flown more than 1,600 WWII Veterans, in excess of 1,000 guardians and has amassed a volunteer base of nearly 100. Honor Flight was conceived when the WWII Veteran’s Memorial was dedicated in 2004; by the end of 2012, over 91,000 veterans had traveled from 117 hubs across the country.
Through Honor Flight Arizona’s fundraising and sponsors, the trip costing $900 per veteran comes at no cost to them.
Beginning Nov. 1, the flights will begin including Korean Veterans. There is already approximately 350 Korean Veterans on the waiting list; however, should a WWII Veteran apply to take his or her Honor Flight, they will be given priority.
U.S. Army veteran Jack Shinberg, has been a Scottsdale resident for 12 years, but an Arizona resident since 1981.
“I was a motor sergeant in the battalion headquarters,” Mr. Shinberg said in an Oct. 18 interview. “I was literally a tourist because I never got anywhere.”
After basic training, Mr. Shinberg spent one year at San Fransisco-based Army post, Presidio before receiving orders to fly to Italy.
“We were supposed to go to Italy, but we had broiler trouble,” he explained. “We landed in Oran, which was a port-city in Algeria — it must have been about 15 months there — and then we came back to the states. We were supposed to go to the Philippines but the war was over in the meantime.”
He enlisted at the age of 21, after being rejected from the U.S. Air Corps because of his eyesight.
“I could have dodged the Army because they lost my papers and I would never had gone. My draftward had me as gone,” he said.
It was Mr. Shinberg’s desire to serve his country that drew him to enlisting.
“So I can say I was overseas but I was as far behind the line as you could be,” he said.
The veterans traveling are accompanied by a guardian, usually a family-member, but Mr. Shinberg was making the trek by himself. Fred Zelinka was taking his son David with him.
“I’m overwhelmed by all that’s going on here,” said Fred Zelinka during the airport gathering on Oct. 18. “It’s beautiful, it’s great that they do this.”
Fred joined the service right out of high school.
“I was in the flight program and wound up on the B-25,” he said. “I went to radio school in Sioux Falls, and then I went to gunnery school in Yuma and I was on a B-25 crew.”
Based in Columbia, S.C., Fred says he was a radio operator gunner. The crews would gather together and a pilot would pick which six men he wanted in his airplane.
“We left West Palm Beach with a brand new B-25, and went to Burma,” he explained. “We went all around. I was in India, and then the war ended. They dropped the bomb, and I wound up in China.”
His mission included transferring Chinese soldiers after they had disarmed the Japanese, before going to the Philippines.
“I got out in ‘46. I went in ‘43, right out of high school,” he said. “And then I got out and I went to the G.I. Bill of Rights and got myself an engineering degree from MIT. By the time I was 25 years of age, I had three years of service to my country and an engineering degree.”
Fred had a career with Motorola who transferred him from Texas to Arizona in 1981.
“When I found out about this, I just said ‘I’ve got to be a guardian,’” said David Zelinka on Oct. 18. “I really think my dad might not have gone by himself without me being here because he just feels so much more comfortable.”
David said his dad has been to D.C. a number of times during his career, but never to the memorial.
“For one of his birthdays at Falcon Field in Mesa, there’s a B-25 bomber there that you can get flights on, and that’s what he flew in, so I took him up on the plane and we did a fly over the Valley. That was neat, but the flight itself wasn’t his favorite part it was just chatting with the guys that were there and talking about war stories and talking about the plane.”
David said while he enjoyed being in the B-25 bomber and crawling around, his father has had his fair share of time in the back of the war plane.
“We’re like ‘yeah you can go back in the tail if you want,’ and my dad’s like ‘no that’s OK, I’ve spent enough time back there, I’m fine,’” David said.
Supporting the vets
Robert Krug and his wife Nicole became involved with Honor Flight Arizona in 2012 when Nicole accompanied her father on the trip.
Mr. Krug is now a board member, while Mrs. Krug is the social media coordinator for the nonprofit entity.
The average age of a WWII veterans is 92-years-old, and it is estimated the group is dying at a rate of 1,200-1,500 per day, according to the Honor Flight Arizona website.
“They’re getting to be fewer and fewer, either we’ve managed to already fly them, or unfortunately it’s gotten to be in the last year or so, they’re either too sick or they’ve passed away by the time we’re able to get to them,” Mrs. Krug said in an Oct. 18 interview.
“At one point we had a back-up of World War II veterans, the same way we have the Korean veterans now. My dad went on the trip and he was on a wait list, and I kept praying that he was going to make it, thankfully he did.”
The group flies multiple trips each spring and fall.
“We don’t want to risk the bad weather in the winter, and it’s too hot and too many tourists in the summer time,” Mrs. Krug said.
The three-day trip is a quick turn-around, said Mr. Krug, but takes time to recover emotionally and physically.
“My standard recovery time is two or three days, once I get back, and I’ve been on six trips,” said Mr. Krug. “I know it’s going to take me, even though I have to go back to work and everything, by the time I get fully rested and kind of emotionally back because there’s a lot going on.”
The emotions that volunteers feel ranges from gratitude to awe, even when they are flying with strangers.
“Just to hear some of the stories of these guys and the women too,” he said.
“Two of the gentlemen I sat with on the plane home during the first trip in September, one of them had been under fire in Europe for 96-hours straight. 96-hours straight by the Germans. And the only reason the Germans stopped was so they could go pick up the bodies. And the other gentlemen hadn’t eaten in like five days. Just to hear those — I can’t even conceive it.”
The program flies on Southwest Airlines, whose employees often donate their sky miles to the veterans, said Mrs. Krug.
During the Oct. 18 gathering, the group already had the boarding passes and luggage tags for each of the guests ready-to-go, to make the trip as easy as possible. There was also a TSA agent visiting with each of the veterans.
“At our hub we have a really tight relationship with Southwest Airlines and the TSA,” said Mrs. Krug. “TSA has assigned agents that will come down and give a brief little briefing, talk to our vets — some of them haven’t flown since World War II.”
After arriving in Baltimore, the group will have dinner together before preparing for a nine-and-a-half hour day touring the nation’s capital. Their schedule includes visiting the Women’s Memorial, the FDR memorial, the Vietnam, Lincoln and Korean memorials, the Navy memorial, WWII memorial and Air Force memorial.