Seymour Kaplan was 17 years old when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in the 1940s. Born in Brooklyn in September 1926 to Russian-Jewish immigrants, he wanted to get into the action after the bombing of Pearl Harbor because he had heard disturbing rumors about what was happening to Jews in Germany and other parts of Europe. The minimum age for the draft was 18 and because proof of age was not required, like so many other young men at the time, he signed up for the draft and put in for immediate induction. Three weeks later he was wearing the uniform. “I never hurt a person in my life. If I got into a fight and another kid got hurt, I quit. You know, Brooklyn kids were like that…but this was different. I mean, it doesn’t take long to change and when you have a gun on your hip, you’re a different person,” said Kaplan during a video-recorded interview for Big Apple Honor Flight.
And so it was that Kaplan was called upon to be a Yiddish interpreter for The Allies who liberated the concentration camp at Dachau. In April of 1944, he entered Dachau following the exodus of German troops and the SS guards who oversaw its operation. Kaplan was ordered by his captain to speak to the camp survivors and interpret to him what they were saying. Initially, Kaplan did not know much about what he was being told, but he learned fast as he witnessed the aftermath of the unimaginable human atrocities that had been committed at Dachau prior to the camp’s liberation.
Upon Kaplan’s return home after the war’s end, the memories of the carnage he witnessed firsthand forced him to bury his emotions deep inside. For Seymour, it was his family’s unwillingness to let him talk about it that drove his emotions back. He would try to speak to his mother and father, as well as his older brother, but they would stop him and say that they could not listen to the difficult and painful accounts he tried to speak of. ‘‘CLICK!’’ Kaplan said decades later, gesturing with the turn of a key in his hand, “I put it in the safe, locked it up, and never spoke about it again…but I felt it…someplace, somehow.”
For so many veterans, there was little, if any, homecoming with hearts, flowers, or flags. They simply tried to move ahead with their lives, their work, or school and never received the welcome home each member of the armed forces deserved after their service and sacrifice.
Korean War soldiers returned home to a population that was mostly disinterested in the war effort. Soldiers returning home to the United States from Vietnam faced a nation torn apart by the debate of an unpopular war, as well as the scorn of an American public that took their anti-war attitudes out on service members.
Big Apple Honor Flight is the New York City hub of the National Honor Flight Network. After the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. in May of 2004, the Honor Flight Network was co-founded in 2005 by Jeff Miller, the son of a WWII veteran and Ret. U.S. Airforce Captain, Earl Morse, the son of a Korean and Vietnam War veteran. Their vision was to honor our nation’s veterans by bringing them on an all-expense paid trip to Washington D.C. for a day to visit the memorial and monuments dedicated to their service and built in their honor. Participation in an Honor Flight gives veterans the chance to share this momentous trip with other veterans, to remember friends and comrades lost, and share their stories and experiences with each other. Today, the 501-c-3 not-for-profit Honor Flight Network consists of over 130 independent hubs throughout the country, working together to provide veterans a day of gratitude; a trip that many of our veterans may not otherwise be able to take. Since its formation, the Honor Flight Network has taken over 245,000 veterans to Washington D.C. and serves some 22,000 veterans each year. As recently as May 3, 2022, Honor Flight celebrated their 250,000th veteran to D.C.
Mark Giordano, the Executive Director of Big Apple Honor Flight recently recounted the story of a returning WWII veteran who hitchhiked on a milk truck because he didn’t have any money to get where he needed to get to. He said, “The thought of that, for us, the next generation who are a little more entitled and who benefitted from his service to country…it didn’t ring right. It is often difficult for the rest of us to understand what these vets have experienced; it wouldn’t be so hard to give them a day that they will remember the rest of their lives.”
Big Apple Honor Flight (BAHF) was co-founded by Becky and Brian Maher, who also helped found the Hudson Valley Honor Flight hub. BAHF’s inaugural flight took place out of JFK International on April 29, 2017 and serves all five boroughs of NYC, flying veterans from New York, Kings, Queens, Bronx, and Richmond counties. After its inaugural flight, the BAHF organization went on a hiatus, and in 2019 Giordano, a retired rugby player, reached out to the Mahers asking them if they were looking for someone to take over the Big Apple hub. They were, and Giordano took over as executive director in the summer of 2019. He rebuilt the organization and brought in a great group of volunteers, and they were all set to fly in 2020. Then the pandemic hit, grounding them for two years.
Currently, according to the BAHF website, over 430 World War II veterans die every day. Thus, there is an urgency to locate veterans of that generation first, as well as the Korean War and those who are terminally ill on a first-come-first-served basis, as the time to express thanks to these brave men and women is running out. To ensure that all flights are full, Honor Flight is now expanding to include Vietnam veterans, and all Vietnam vets are encouraged to apply so that their applications are on file for future consideration.
In a May 2022 interview, Mark Giordano explained the logistics of Big Apple Honor Flight operations. Once a veteran, or a family member with a veteran who wishes to take part in a flight is located, they are directed to the BAHF website at https://bigapplehonor flight.org where they can click on the ’Participation’ tab. An application can be filled out online, or if preferred a hard copy can be downloaded and mailed to Big Apple Honor Flight, 909 Third Avenue, #159, NY, NY 10150. There is no cost whatsoever to the veteran to participate.
Once a veteran’s application is accepted, they will be contacted by a member of the BAHF committee approximately 2-3 months before the flight. Each veteran will have a guardian to accompany them for the entirety of the trip. Guardians play a significant role on every trip, ensuring that each veteran has a safe and memorable experience. Duties include physically assisting the veterans at the airport, during the flight and at the memorials, as well as ensuring that their veteran is comfortable and enjoying every moment of the trip. Guardians must fill out an application, also found on the ‘Participation’ tab. In addition to providing their support on flight day, they also must subsidize the cost of their flight by paying their own way. A meet and greet of the veterans, guardians, safety team, and flight leaders then take place 2-3 weeks before Flight Day so that all can get acquainted with one another and to shore up details and get a glimpse into what the day will be like.
On the morning of their Honor Flight, veterans are motorcaded from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn to JFK International Airport via police escort, as well as motorcyclists from the Tri-State area. Upon their arrival to JFK, hundreds of welcoming faces are there to greet them and shake their hands before going to the gate area where they receive a rally of applauds, cheers, salutes, a bagpipe reception, well wishes and more. After boarding a chartered flight on American Airlines, the veterans receive a water cannon salute before departure. They are then flown to Washington where their reception is one of applause and welcoming solidarity. Boarding buses, the veterans are brought to the World War II Memorial, the Marine Corp IWO Jima Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam Wall Memorial, and finally a solemn procession to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where the veterans are given the opportunity to reflect and silently meditate. And the silence is deafening.
After their visit to the memorials, the veterans attend a banquet in Washington where they receive a final salute before being shuttled back to Reagan International Airport. On the flight back to JFK, veterans receive ‘Mail Call’, a packet of letters, notes and congratulations and well wishes from family and friends and the community. Upon their arrival, there is a welcome home rally at the JFK American Airlines terminal and the veterans return home with the treasured memories of a ‘flight of a lifetime.’
Part of the reason Mark Giordano became involved in Big Apple Honor Flight is that his grandfather was a Korean War veteran, so he has a special place in his heart for them. Reflecting upon BAHF’s Mission #2 flight which took place on May 14, 2022, Giordano said, ‘’American Airlines has been a great partner over the years. They did a phenomenal job this past May at JFK and literally rolled out the red carpet and provided the perfect sendoff, setting the tone for what the day was going to be like, as well as the welcome home. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without their help.” He recalled how the veterans were treated like rock stars at the WWII Memorial. “Everybody wanted to come over and shake their hands. To see young people, particularly, to be able to say that they met a veteran there; they are living history and all that it encapsulates!” One of them was WWII veteran, Vincent Wesley, who served under Gen. George Patton from 1942-1945 and who turned 100 years old this past February.
Korean War veteran James Faulkner was 16 years old in 1950 but said that he was 19 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Faulkner landed at the Pusan Perimeter, which was the last holdout before the South Korean, U.S. and U.N. forces were swept into the sea in the summer of 1950 after the North Korean invasion. After breaking away from the Perimeter, winter set in and was one of the harshest on record that the U.S. military ever endured. Up by the border, Faulkner heard rumors of Chinese intervention. Ultimately, China crossed the border, invaded and put several 100 thousand troops in country. Faulkner was captured and spent 30 months in a POW camp before returning home to the States.
‘’There’s something unique about the Vietnam War veteran experience,” added Giordano, “the welcome home they received was not a pleasant one, to say the least. But this past May we gave them the welcome home that is long overdue and so rightfully deserved. You could see how emotional they got for the belated thank you and welcome home that they received.”
More than 265,000 women served in the military during Vietnam and approximately 11,000 women served in-country during the conflict. Vietnam veteran Monica Lacassagne of Manhattan was one of the honorees. During the war, she was one of the few females who served in-country in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.
Jamie Carter served in Vietnam and was stationed on the USS Forrestal. The Forrestal was the worst disaster the Navy had since WWII after a F4 Phantom Rocket hit a fuel tank on one of the reconnaissance planes and exploded, killing 134 sailors. At the meet and greet two weeks before the flight, Carter asked if he could visit the Forrestal memorial at Arlington. One of the volunteers took him to the memorial and Carter thanked the organization because he finally found closure. And that is what Honor Flight is all about.
After Seymour Kaplan’s Big Apple Honor Flight on April 29, 2017, over 70 years after his service during World War II, he said, “It was a beautiful, beautiful, pleasant experience. It’s all these people you don’t know and don’t see coming out… to let you know that they were there and are still there for you. It was just wonderful, above and beyond. It was so nice; it was a sweet gesture to cap off a terrible thing and terrible memories. Who would wake up that early to see me get off a bus? But I felt special doing it!
The Big Apple Honor Flight hub is a not-for-profit, all volunteer organization that pays for all veteran costs, including the charter flights, bus transfers, meals and all related expenses. Two major sponsors in New York are GF Real Estate and National Grid. Big Apple Honor Flight could not fulfill their mission without their support. Fundraising efforts are continuous and an ongoing priority throughout the year.
Tax deductible donations can be made at www.bigapplehonorflight.org via the ‘Donate’ tab.
Corporations and businesses who are interested in supporting the organization may contact Mark Giordano at firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com
Dedicated to the memory of our good friend and colleague, Joe Alba, a proud Marine, loving husband, father, and founding Editor in Chief, Metropolitan Airport News. Honor Flight was an important organization to Joe, one which he actively supported and held close to his heart.