WWII veteran takes flight in vintage airplane
The nonprofit Dream Flights said the group had offered free flights since 2011 to more than 4,200 veterans and seniors living in long-term care facilities. (Dream flights)
SIOUX CITY, Iowa (Tribune News Service) – Cal Swagerty spent WWII on the ground, fighting across France, Belgium and Germany.
On Wednesday, his service earned him a special flight over Sioux City in a WWII plane.
“I was mostly a farrier,” said the Wakefield, Neb. Native, shortly before being helped to board a 1942 Boeing Stearman biplane for a short flight over from Sgt. Floyd Memorial and Missouri River before landing at Sioux Gateway Airport.
As the plane pulled up in front of Hawthorne Global Aviation Services, Swagerty, who turns 98 next week, smiled and greeted family, friends and volunteers who helped organize the flight via Dream Flights, a group nonprofit that honors the elderly and military veterans.
“It was good. I enjoyed it,” he said.
Thanks to volunteers and donations, Dream Flights offers flights aboard Stearman biplanes, the same aircraft used to train many military aviators during World War II. The Swagerty flight was part of the group’s Operation September Freedom. Launched on August 1, the group plans 61 days of flights in more than 300 cities for more than 1,000 veterans. Another such theft occurred earlier Wednesday in Le Mars, Iowa.
McKenzie Roeber, life enrichment coordinator at Heritage Care Center in Emerson, Nebraska, said she was briefed on the program earlier this year and asked if any World War II veterans lived in the center. She said there is one: Swagerty.
“I spoke with him, his daughter and his son, and they said do it, sign it,” Roeber said.
Swagerty’s daughter Betty Wood of Mapleton, Iowa, said her father initially agreed, but became a little hesitant.
“I kind of twisted his arm about it. I thought it was absolutely great, an honor,” said Wood, who was accompanying his dad on Wednesday.
By the time he arrived at the airport, Swagerty was well aware of what to expect from someone who enlisted in the military at the age of 18. Swagerty was a member of the 35th Division and landed in France in June 1944.
“I missed D-Day by about a week, which is probably a good thing,” Swagerty said.
He may have missed the invasion, but saw his share of combat once on the European continent. He fought across France and in the Battle of the Bulge, the main German counterattack in Belgium, in December 1944 and January 1945.
“It was cold,” he said.
From there it entered Germany, advancing to the Elbe at the end of the war.
After his release he returned to Wakefield, where he worked as a welder, farmer and truck driver.
He told his family little about his war experiences, his daughter said. That may well change now, said Molly Littlefield, the pilot of Swagerty’s flight, her 14th with a World War II veteran. The daughter of a WWII flight instructor, Littlefield said she has heard of veterans who open up after their flight and start telling stories of their service that they have never shared with anyone before. .
“It’s really gratifying to see the Airmen. It fills them with adrenaline,” said Littlefield, who lives in Seattle with her husband, Keith, who is her volunteer team leader.
Swagerty’s adrenaline seemed to be running off before he even left the floor. After he was strapped into his seat he shouted “I’m ready, I’m ready” and gave Littlefield a thumbs-up. The plane’s engine roared and Littlefield slowly taxied to the runway as Swagerty waved to the small crowd gathered to witness his flight.
After landing, Swagerty rarely stopped smiling as he was helped to the ground and led to the back of the plane, where he signed his name on the rudder among the signatures of other veterans who had been mounted in the plane.
Leaning on his cane, Swagerty continued to smile as family and volunteers recorded every moment on their cell phones.
“Thanks for the ride,” Swagerty told Littlefield.
It was a thank you from a man who was thanked over and over again on Wednesday for his service many years ago.
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