Seven decades later, Honor Flight recognizes Naperville hero

It’s 3 a.m. Wednesday, two days before the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when 160,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, France.

Frank Johnson, a member of the 323rd Bombardment Group that helped make the World War II invasion possible, waits for his limo.

He’s about to be whisked off to Midway Airport, greeted by the cheering of more than 2,000 supporters and flown to the nation’s capital. He’s no rock star or celebrity; Johnson is a hero.

Johnson, a Naperville resident since 1960, piloted a B-26 bomber in France during World War II. He was one of 88 veterans Wednesday recognized by Honor Flight Chicago with a trip to Washington, D.C. The group visited the National World War II Memorial, a tribute to soldiers and civilians. It opened in 2004, but many veterans haven’t seen it yet.

“Many of the veterans couldn’t physically make the trip to D.C.,” said Mary Pettinato, CEO of Honor Flight Chicago.

“When they got back from war, most of them couldn’t even afford a bus ticket. They didn’t have a long-distance phone to call their parents, so they hitchhiked home. To have this kind of celebration for their service 70 years later is truly important to these people.”

Johnson, now 90, joined the military when he was only 21, flying across the globe to aid the Allies in Europe — refueling on an airstrip carved into the mountains of a tiny island in the Atlantic and making stops in Brazil, Africa and England before finally reaching France. The 323rd Bombardment Group, nicknamed “The White Tails” for a white ID bar on their air crafts’ tails, decimated Hitler’s strongholds across France, Belgium and Holland.

“We hit their railroads, factories and airfields,” said Johnson, who recalled the difficulties piloting the enormous B-26 Marauders.

Johnson was grateful to end his service unscathed, especially with a plane model infamously nicknamed “The Widowmaker.”

“They were fast when we tried to touch down — about 160 mph — which made it really hard to land,” Johnson said.

The White Tails are credited with aiding the D-Day invasion, which marked its 70th anniversary Friday, by barraging coastal defenses and making it possible for troops to invade the German-occupied coast. The Normandy landing began the Allied invasion of Western Europe, and is often credited as the war’s turning point, eventually leading to an Allied victory.

The Chicago area is home to about 25,000 World War II veterans and contributors to the war effort. While 5,000 have been recognized by Chicago Honor Flight, Pettinato hopes to reach the remaining veterans while members of the aging generation are still able to make the trip.

“We have six flights in June, July, September and October, and we don’t have enough veterans to fill those flights,” Pettinato said. “We know there are 20,000 more out there, and we just need to reach out and help them learn about this opportunity.”

Johnson, who celebrates his 91st birthday next month, was fortunate that his daughter Judy Piszczek registered him for the trip. Piszczek says Johnson was surprised by a few unexpected moments of the trip.

“When they flew back at night, they shot a water cannon over the plane and had the military greeting them when they get off the flight, with Vietnam veterans cheering them on,” said Piszczek, who believes that no one deserves the experience more than Johnson and his fellow veterans.

“They’re very humble, all these guys. They did what they did at my kid’s age — it’s incredible.”

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Sign up a veteran

World War II veterans and their families can register for Chicago Honor Flight by calling 773-227-8387 or visiting honorflightchicago.org

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