A welcome arrival: WWII veteran takes Honor Flight
Appreciation of public a memory worth having
Coming home was the best part.
When Joseph Donahue recalls the moment he landed on American soil in 1945 after serving in the Air Force during World War II, tears well in his eyes. The Brookfield resident vividly remembers his first meal at home - fresh milk, beef and pie - after docking at Newport News, Va. on the same ship that had taken him across the world three years earlier.
The meal did not compare to his arrival in Wisconsin on May 6, 1945, when he laid eyes on "Ruthy," the love he had left behind. The couple wrote each other every day they were apart. They married just two and a half weeks later.
It was a homecoming he will never forget and one he recalls fondly.
More than 70 years later, Donahue experienced a second homecoming - one he deems "unbelievable."
A greeting to remember
On June 2, at age 91, Donahue embarked with fellow veterans on a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, an organization that provides veterans with free trips to Washington, D.C., as a sign of appreciation for their service.
"People ask me how the reception we got compares with the reception I got when I came back home. When I got back from overseas, I got back from the boat. There was no reception. The best reception I got was when I saw Ruthy," he said through tears as he remembered the heartwarming moment. "That was my reception; but this was unbelievable."
When the veterans' flights arrived at Gen. Mitchell International Airport after a day spent visiting places such as the World War II Memorial, a crowd in the hundreds greeted them.
"We (Donahue and his guardian) were the last ones off the plane, and we thought everyone would be gone home, but they were still wild as ever," Donahue said.
The perfect pair
It was a touching experience for Donahue and his guardian, Hartland resident Susan Sesolak. The guardians are volunteers who pay for their own flight and ensure the veterans are well taken care of during their trip.
Sesolak was the perfect person for the job.
Both of her parents were World War II veterans. Sesolak had always wanted to take her mother, a first lieutenant in the Army Nurses Corp. who served in Germany, on the honor flight. Her mother died unexpectedly a year and a half ago.
Though she never was able to take her mother, when the call came approving her as guardian, Sesolak didn't think twice about it.
"I believe every freedom and opportunity we have today comes from our veterans, and I wanted to give back," she said.
Sesolak also has three nephews who recently served in the Middle East.
"Next to my wedding, it was probably one of the greatest days I've ever spent," she added.
It also was a day to remember for Donahue, as memories of his service began to surface.
Donahue elected to join the Air Force in 1942.
As a young man he wanted to be a pilot. He was heartbroken when a test revealed he was colorblind, eliminating the dream. Remaining in the Air Force, Donahue worked in the ground crew in the 15th Air Force Division ensuring planes were ready for battle and loaded with bombs.
After training, he was shipped out by sea for 43 days. Donahue was assigned in Libya, where planes would stop to be refueled and prepared for battle.
"There it was horrible - bugs, heat, wind, sand," he recalled.
Donahue made fast friends with the men he shared a tent with. For entertainment, they would fight the scorpions and tarantulas that crawled in their boots while they slept.
By the time his outfit was ready to move 1,300 miles up the coast to Tunis, Donahue - now a sergeant - contracted fly fever. He was left in the desert for a week with one other man and a medic, while his outfit moved onward.
"It was terrible; I was sicker than a dog," he said.
Not long after, Donahue came down with yellow jaundice, landing himself in a field hospital for six weeks and separating entirely from his outfit.
A bittersweet reunion
Donahue was determined to find his unit. He hopped a ride to Tunis and then a flight in a "beat up bomber" to Italy.
"I got off the plane and I didn't know where my outfit was anymore, but I knew they were in Southern Italy," he said.
After sleeping in a basement and going along on foot for three days, Donahue was eventually picked up by a British soldier. Through a bit of luck, the solder was going to the B-22 outfit - Donahue's group.
"My old buddies took all my stuff with them from Africa, and there it was set up at my bunk," he said.
The reunion was bittersweet. That same day, pilots in the 15th Air Force Division set out to bomb Germany. Many didn't return.
"A lot of my friends I knew were shot down that day," he said.
A long journey home
For three years, his family and soon-to-be wife didn't know what he was doing.
"The worst part is I kept going farther away from home, and I could never tell my family where I was," Donahue said.
When the boat he left on three years earlier landed in America in the spring of 1945, the war was ending.
Three years was long enough, and Donahue didn't hesitate to buy an engagement ring, plan a wedding and get married on his one month leave from service.
Due to the influx of soldiers returning home, Donahue was unable to be discharged for six months and was away from home once more.
"That was a long wait," he said.
For information on the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, visit starsandstripeshonorflight.org or attend the movie premier of "Field of Honor: A Salute to the Greatest Generation at 6 p.m. Aug. 11 at Miller Park. The stadium opens at 4:30 p.m.; tickets cost $11.
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