By CAROLINE MURRAY
The Leatherstocking Honor Flight hosted its 25th trip to Washington, D.C., this past weekend, carrying 47 World War II veterans from the capital region including two veterans from Montgomery County.
The honor flight flew into Baltimore-Washington International Airport Saturday where veterans were greeted by a marching band and then taken on tours of national monuments, including the National World War II Memorial.
Before taking off, World War II veterans Victor Eckler of Fort Plain and John Wszolek of Amsterdam were accompanied to the Albany Airport by 50 local motorcyclists and a fire truck.
Broadalbin American Legion Post 337's American Legion Riders and the Hagaman Volunteer Fire Department escorted the two local veterans to the airport before departing for the nation's capital.
"It is a very gratifying experience," said American Legion Riders Director Dave Davis.
Davis said this was his sixth year the riders escorted local veterans to the airport.
Before the group departed, the New York Air National Guard Band from West Point played patriotic music and Congressman Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, gave a speech to the men and women who once served our country.
"They give them a big send-off," Davis said.
The Leatherstocking Honor Flight is based in Cobleskill and is one of 100 units in the National Honor Flight Network.
Veteran coordinator Liz Reinhart said the Leatherstocking Honor Flight was established in 2008. The organization schedules four trips a year and the next flight will take place June 7.
The trip to D.C. is a one-day affair and is at no cost to the veterans.
Each time, the flight brings area veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the monuments with family or friends before treating them to dinner and then flying them home.
Along with stopping at the National World War II Memorial, Reinhart said Saturday the group made trips to Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial.
In addition to traveling with fellow veterans, those making the trip are also assigned a guardian. The guardians are either family members or random volunteers who pay roughly $300 to fly with the veterans and escort them throughout the day.
"It really is a great thing to do," Reinhart said. "The veterans go free of charge."
One of those veterans, 91-year-old Eckler, brought his daughter Kathleen Pelegrini as his guardian for the day.
He said the group was greeted by a cheerful crowd and marching band when they arrived at the airport.
"After we got off the plane we went into the airport and they were there waiting for us," Eckler said. "It was a great surprise."
Eckler served in the Army Air Corps from 1941 through 1945. He said the U.S. Air Force did not exist at the time and the Air Corps was an extension of the U.S. Army.
While abroad, he toured the Pacific Southwest, including the Philippines and New Guinea.
He was discharged after falling ill with a skin infection and was sent back to Fonda.
"I had no transportation home," Eckler said. "I took a train and had to get off and hitch hike."
Which is perhaps why Eckler was elated by the crowd that met them at the airport Saturday.
He said Saturday was his first time on the honor flight and his first trip to the D.C. area.
He was overwhelmed by the site of the National World War II Memorial. He said it was larger than he imagined. Also, Eckler said former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole was at the memorial and spoke to the visiting group.
"It was wonderful -- unbelievable, the things that we saw," Eckler said.