WWII veterans take flight
Free biplane rides in Waupaca
By Greg Seubert
A nationwide effort to honor surviving World War II veterans made a landing at the Waupaca Municipal Airport.
Aug. 2 marked the second day of Operation September Freedom, a campaign to provide free biplane rides to veterans of a war that ended 76 years ago.
Seven area World War II veterans were invited to take a 20-minute ride in The Spirit of Wisconsin, a restored Stearman biplane. Five of them – Theodore Cook, Robert Dehling, Roger Lamay, Levan Toepke and Arlin Barden – had a bird’s-eye view of the Waupaca area. Two others – Thomas Young and Ralph Reda – were unable to fly.
Darryl Fisher and his team of volunteers showed up at the airport with the plane.
Ten years ago, Fisher and his family started Dream Flights, an organization that provides plane rides to veterans and senior citizens.
“We take them up for 20 minutes, show them the countryside, get the wind in their face, get the exhilaration and adrenaline going,” he said. “We have a hat-signing ceremony for them and they sign the tail of the airplane.
“It’s the last mission for World War II veterans in history,” he said. “They’re all 95 or older and we’re losing them at a rapid rate. We’ve been doing this for 10 years and we made a decision this year that we need to do a national mission this year to honor World War II veterans. We’re going to fly a thousand World War II veterans between Aug. 1 and Sept. 30. This is the second day in and we have five airplanes working today.”
Taking a ride
Toepke is 94, lives at Bethany Home in Waupaca and served in the U.S. Army in 1945.
“It was fun,” he said after his ride with pilot John Cyrier. “I could see the country below. It kind of reminded me of a helicopter. I couldn’t wait to go. It almost made tears come to my eyes.”
Cyrier, a state legislator in Texas, volunteers his time to fly veterans with Dream Flights.
“I flew one yesterday and he said, ‘I want to do this all day,’” he said. “It’s a very emotional thing for me because I think about what they’ve done for us and the fact that we’re able to give them this little gift that means so much to them. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not in tears at some point.”
“They’re at a stage in their lives where they’ve done a lot of things for society, but they’re losing their friends, they’re losing spouses,” Fisher said. “Physically, things aren’t working out for them. They’re sitting in their apartments watching loss after loss after loss. What we offer them is an opportunity to come to the airport, do something cool, fly in an open-cockpit biplane with cameras. They’re alive again. It renews their energy and it makes them relevant.”
Young, another Bethany Home resident, was invited to take a ride, but the Dream Flights team was unable to get him in his seat. Originally from Milwaukee, Young served in the U.S. Navy from 1943-47 and was at the airport with friends and family members, including his wife, Jeanette.
“I remember it all,” he said. “I was in the Philippines twice. I was in Guam and I was in Okinawa.”
“Look how he remembers everything,” said Jeanette, who had three brothers that served during the war.
“I was only 7 years old and they were there five years apiece,” she said. “When they came home in their uniforms, I was afraid of them. I hid behind a cookstove. When we went to school, they used to talk about communists. We thought those guys were communists when they came home.”
Back in time
“For some, it takes them back to when they were 18 and 19 years old,” Cyrier said. “That’s what a lot of them tell me. It reminds them of when they were young men and women back in that time period. You can tell that they seem to have to have a little more energy and enthusiasm just getting in and out of the aircraft.
“Flying, especially in an open cockpit, there’s nothing better than being out in nature and getting to fly,” he added. “It’s different because you have the wind, the smells, the actual noise of the engine. There are lot of senses that are being opened up as you’re flying in a World War II Stearman biplane.”
Operation September Freedom kicked off with a visit to the Stevens Point Municipal Airport on Aug. 1. From there, the tour visits airports in Wausau and Merrill on Aug. 3 and Green Bay and Hartford on Aug. 6.
“Just like this airplane is a national treasure, these veterans are definitely our national treasure,” Cyrier said. “It’s such a privilege to be with them, get to hear their stories and give something back to them while we still have them with us to express our sincere thanks for all that they’ve done and the sacrifices they made.”
“The harsh reality is that these World War II veterans gave us our freedom,” Fisher said. “If they hadn’t done what they did and been successful, it would have changed the world, not to mention the United States. Us saying thank you seems like the least we could do. That’s why we’re doing it. We’re saying thank you to these guys for what they did for us.”
The experience is different than an Old Glory Honor Flight, which gives World War II, Korean War and Vietnam veterans an opportunity to visit the memorials built in their honor in Washington, D.C.
“This is why we travel the country,” Fisher said. “Most of our Dream Flyers can’t go to D.C. They’re physically unable to do it. It’s a wonderful trip, but it’s grueling. World War II veterans by and large can’t make that trip anymore. We have to go to them and that’s what we’re doing.”
COVID-19 kept Dream Flights from offering airplane trips last year.
“This is our last chance, really,” Cyrier said. “We’re losing over a thousand World War II veterans a day. This is our chance to give them those flights and hopefully, we can be back again next year and meet some more.”
“Think about it,” Fisher said. “You’re 95, you’re not thinking about flying. For them to be able to come out to the airport today and fly in an open cockpit biplane is unbelievable. It changes their energy level, it changes their outlook on life. It makes them a hero again.”