Submitted By Stan Banash | Norwood Crossing
For 70 years, Donald Larsen, 92, put his World War II service behind him as a 58-year resident of Chicago’s Forest Glen community.
He served from 1942-46, first training as an infantryman on the East coast and later serving in England, Austria and Germany, the latter with the 1055th Combat Engineers in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. He wanted to forget the horrors of war and focus on his civilian life, which included 35 years as an accountant with Sears, Roebuck and Co.
His wife, Lois, died in 2010 after seven years as a resident of nearby Norwood Crossing – a long-term care retirement community. The following year, Larsen needed personal care, home delivered meals and other assistance. He opted for Norwood Seniors Network – a home care not-for-profit provider affiliated with Norwood Crossing to help him continue living independently in his own home.
His most recent caregiver, Karen Campbell, knew of his military service and heard that Honor Flight Chicago was beginning to accept Korean War veterans because the number of ambulatory WWII veterans had greatly diminished. Wanting Larsen to participate as a WWII veteran, she and and friend Jim Lefeber, a Norwood Seniors Network meal delivery volunteer, submitted Don’s name and monitored the application process. They were determined to have him participate.
“I didn’t have anything to do with it,” Larsen admitted. “But, I was thrilled to be considered. I thought about it but never had any idea of getting involved or that it might happen. I can’t walk well and had questions. Can I go? Will my health allow me to go?”
Larsen was assured that every veteran is accompanied by an aide to assist them throughout the day and on the round-trip flight.
Finally, word came that the WWII veteran was accepted, and he was ecstatic.
“It will be an experience I’ll never forget, and they will take good care of us,” Larsen said.
Campbell bought some clothes for him to wear as he prepared to be a part of HFC Flight No. 71, which departed from Chicago’s Midway Airport June 8.
“I really didn’t know what to expect, but we had everything we needed,” he said. “There were an awful lot of old men there, many in wheelchairs, including me, and I had a nice young lady pushing me.”
Larsen was able to visit the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War memorials, and he said he was very impressed with their massiveness, beauty and the emotion they evoked. “Everybody should see the memorials,” he said. “I never could imagine how great they are.”
Reflecting back on his whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C., Larsen described it as “very enjoyable.”
The return flight included a “mail call,” during which letters were distributed to veterans on the plane.
“I had a whole bag of mail—letters from the president, U.S. senators and many others,” Larsen said. “Some read their mail on the plane, but I needed to sleep. I didn’t go to bed that night at all. I didn’t want to miss [the flight], and was ready to go at 3 a.m. when Jim [Lefeber] picked me up.”
The group of 133 WWII and Korean War veterans returned to Midway Airport at 7 p.m. that evening to a large crowd of family members, veterans groups and well-wishers.
“When we got back to Chicago, hundreds of people wanted to thank me and shake my hand,” Larsen said. “They were happy we got back [from the war] in good shape and lived a good life.
“I wasn’t expecting it, and I didn’t know how they felt about me. But, I was appreciative and grateful. I loved it. I was happy. I didn’t want to reflect on the past. I was just enjoying every minute of the present.”
In the end, Larsen said the trip brought back memories but in a “happy way.”
“I’m very happy and blessed with Karen and Jim,” he said. “Without them, I don’t know what I would do.”