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Decades later, World War II heroes welcomed home from Washington by crowd of thousands

Colette and Mitch Bennett embrace after he returned home from his Honor Flight, a day that celebrates World War II veterans. (Judi Sullivan, courtesy)

Colette and Mitch Bennett embrace after he returned home from his Honor Flight, a day that celebrates World War II veterans. (Judi Sullivan, courtesy)

Mitch Bennett left his young wife and new daughter in 1943 to fight in World War II. The 86-year-old Elk Grove man and dozens of other area veterans of that conflict recently got a reception at Midway Airport from a crowd of thousands. (Photo gallery)

Bennett and his comrades had flown to Washington D.C. earlier in the day on April 27, through Honor Flight Chicago, which provides veterans with a free day-trip to the nation’s capital to visit the memorials built in their honor.

The baggage area was packed with well-wishers from all around Chicago, holding signs that called them heroes. Among them were Gurnee Mayor Kristina Kovarik and about well-wishers from her town that had made the trip to Midway to welcome back the vets.

Bennett’s daughter, Judi Sullivan, was proud of her dad and the reception he got.

“He’s a true Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine. This is the thing he’s been looking forward to all his life,” Sullivan said.

With 97 veterans from the Chicagoland area on board, the Southwest flight took off from Midway Airport in the early morning hours on the first Honor Flight of the year.

“We had a great day,” Mitch Bennett said. “We saw the memorials, paraded around in front of everyone and had a good time.”

About 30 of Bennett’s relatives cheered and cried as he walked through the crowd at Midway, shaking hands and waving. He swept his wife, Colette, into a large hug and looked lovingly at the rest of their family before moving on down the line.

The family members all wore matching white shirts with his service photo that proclaimed “We’re so proud of our Marine.”

“He wrote in every card – every birthday card, every graduation – ‘We’re so proud of you,’” Sullivan said. “Now, it’s our turn to say that to him.”

Further down the corridor, Kovarik smiled and waved, wiping away tears as veterans she never met walked and wheeled past her.

Kovarik traveled with about a dozen others from the far north suburb in vans donated by Waukegan-based Metro Cabs to thank the veterans, welcome them home, and donate $3,000 raised by the Gurnee Sons of the American Legion to the Honor Flight program.

The night was emotional for Kovarik because her father, Harold Van Hook, who served in Europe during World War II, never got to see the memorial.

“My dad was so excited when he heard they were building it. He was sending money, doing whatever he could to help – the thing he cared most about was this memorial in D.C.,” she said.

Van Hook died a month before his scheduled trip to see the memorial in 2004. Kovarik and her brother took the trip without him.

“He didn’t make it, but this memorial is what he lived for,” she said.

For Lavergne Novak, 87, of Willowbrook, going on an Honor Flight in 2009 was the experience of a lifetime.

“It was absolutely unbelievable – and coming home was the best part,” Novak said. She served stateside in the Marine Corps during World War II.

Like Novak, Clifton Hubbell, 91, served stateside during the war. His humility almost kept him from applying to go on one of the flights, said his wife, Esther.

“He was dragging his feet. He said he thought his service wasn’t that exemplary, because he wasn’t exposed to as much dangerous stuff as some of the others,” she said.

Someone finally convinced him his service was worthy. He was given the same hero’s welcome as the other veterans when he arrived home Wednesday night.

Friend and fellow veteran Lloyd Lawson, 83, also sat in the crowd Wednesday to welcome home Hubbell, who lives in the same retirement community in Downers Grove.

Lawson, who was a young teen when World War II broke out, went on an Honor Flight more than a year ago.

“The hospitality and spirit of the trip was just overwhelming,” he said. “It felt great.”

Mitch Bennett said he was shocked by the outpouring of support – from family, from friends, and from strangers alike.

“This is amazing. Totally unpredicted. I’m absolutely shocked,” he said. “I didn’t even have a hint at what would be here.”

With tired eyes and soft, humble words, Bennett seemed overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.

“It’s all for you, dad,” Sullivan said. “It’s all for what you guys did for us.”

For more information on Honor Flight Chicago, visit www.honorflightchicago.org.

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