Whitehall News

Honor Flight

Trip to Washington stirs memories for three Whitehall-area veterans

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CHRIS PARKER/THISWEEKNEWS
Whitehall-area residents (from left) George Kasinecz, Ron Rooker and Irv Swain recently went on Honor Flight trips to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II and Korean War memorials.
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Whitehall Senior Center members share some camaraderie, but the bond of three particular men at the center is particularly special.

George Kasinecz, Ron Rooker and Irv Swain are all veterans and recently participated in Honor Flight, a one-time expenses-paid program provided to America's veterans to visit the nation's capital and numerous war memorials.

"There were a lot of emotions that day," said Rooker, who previously had seen the memorials in Washington but was most moved by the stories he had shared that September day with other veterans from throughout the country.

So impressed was Rooker with the experience of Honor Flight, which includes providing each veteran with a chaperone, that he recruited two of his fellow senior center members, Kasinecz and Swain, to participate in the next Honor Flight the following month.

Swain had never seen any of the memorials, as it had been nearly a half a century since he had visited Washington, D.C. The World War II memorial opened in 2004; the Korean War memorial opened in 1995.

Rooker, 78, has lived in Whitehall since 1962 and is a U.S. Air Force and Korean War veteran.

"I saw the memorials before on a trip with the senior center, but this time was different because I was traveling and talking with other veterans," Rooker said, adding that some of them spoke of their warfare experience.

Rooker recounted one man who was in the Battle of the Bulge, a major German offensive in World War II and considered to be among the worst losses of life for allied forces during the war.

"He told me a grenade was thrown in his foxhole," Rooker said of the man. "He jumped out (sustaining injury from shrapnel), but his friend (was killed)."

Rooker spent his service as an air-traffic controller stationed at Toul-Rosieres Air Force Base in France. Upon his discharge, he was hired by the Federal Aviation Administration and began working at the Port Columbus airport in 1957 as an air-traffic controller at a time when commercial air travel was somewhat of an anomaly.

About 50,000 flights a year were common then, and a majority of those were the private planes of celebrities, including Elvis Presley on one occasion, he recalled.

Rooker seldom met the plane's cloistered passengers, but he had one memorable encounter.

"I cut through the terminal to get coffee one morning and stumbled across Elizabeth Taylor," he said. "She really does have the most beautiful eyes."

Kasinecz, 82, is an Air Force veteran and served during the Korean War. The Whitehall resident and Pennsylvania native spent four years in the Air Force, including two years in cryptography.

Although the messages that were sent and received since have been declassified, he still is not permitted to disclose the techniques used to encrypt and decrypt those messages. The messages generally were reports about sorties between American F-86 "Sabre Jets" and Russian MIGs.

"Those MIGs were actually faster than our Sabres but had some real cowboy pilots, so we were still more successful (in air battles)," Kasinecz said.

The most memorable experience of Honor Flight, Kasinecz said, was the receptions veterans received at both airports and in Washington, D.C.

"We got to Port Columbus at 5 a.m., and as we got on the plane, there were two fire trucks that crossed ladders over the plane," he said.

The veterans were greeted in similar fashion at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"Everywhere we went in Washington, people came up to us, shook our hands and thanked us for being a veteran," Kasinecz said. "You could see the sincerity in their eyes. It was an amazing experience. I'll always remember it."

Swain, 87, is a U.S. Navy and World War II veteran.

Also a Whitehall resident, Swain spent his time in the service under the waters of the North Atlantic, advancing the sonar and radar technology of submarines.

"That was the first time I ever got to see all the monuments (in Washington, D.C.)," Swain said. "It was a great trip."

After his service, Swain owned and operated a barber shop for almost 50 years -- the James and Main Barber Shop in east Columbus.

The experience of Honor Flight is one more thing the men can discuss during shuffleboard matches at the senior center, along with their growing families.

Kasinecz and his wife, Mary Anne, have six children, 15 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, with two more due in January.

Rooker and his wife, Mae, have four children and nine grandchildren.

Swain and his wife, Audrey, have two children, three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

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