The last time Tony Baleno was on an airplane, it was 1946 and the former Navy Frogman (the previous name for a Navy Seal) was coming back to Boston from the European front after World War II.
The 93-year-old veteran and Soldiers’ Home resident had never traveled by airplane on any trips as his late wife was scared to fly. Instead, he said, they just drove everywhere.
All that ended on Sunday when Baleno was treated to an Honor Flight in Washington, D.C. to take a whirlwind, one-day trip to see the World War II Memorial and the various other sites around the nation’s capital. The Honor Flight program has been in existence for several years and has chapters all over the country, mainly focusing on flying World War II veterans to the Memorial in their waning years. The trip is free of charge to the veterans and they get a hero’s welcome at nearly every stop on the day-long tour.
Baleno is the first resident of the Soldiers’ Home to take advantage of the Honor Flight.
“We’ve been talking about this a lot since May, and he told me one day the last time he flew was in 1946 on his way back from World War II,” said Jennifer DeCourcey, director of residential services at the Soldiers’ Home. “I asked him how he felt about flying after all these years, and he just said, ‘Can I have the window seat?’”
DeCourcey accompanied Baleno on the trip Sunday, paying for it out of her own pocket, and considering it an incredible journey for the two of them.
She said Baleno got a lot of attention from members of the military – and especially the Navy – at every leg of the trip, quite a bit more attention than the other 60 veterans on the tour. That’s because he was a Navy Frogman who served at D-Day and Guadalcanal. Frogmen were the previous name of the elite Navy unit now known as Navy Seals.
“The Navy people especially went crazy over him and everyone wanted their picture taken with him,” DeCourcey said. “There aren’t many Frogmen left and there weren’t many to start with, and everybody had heard of him. They all wanted pictures with him. He was at D-Day, he was at Guadalcanal – serving in two theatres – and he was never on a ship.”
Lines of high school JROTC members and military personnel, and even the Boston Police Gaelic Column, greeted Baleno and the other veterans as they entered Logan Airport just before 5 a.m. to start their journey. It was an emotional time for the two as the National Anthem was sang and they were given a standing ovation as they proceeded to the terminal. That situation repeated itself at every airport they passed through, including having many Midshipmen greeting them at the Baltimore Airport.
“For me, that was the most inspiring part and I think Tony felt the same way,” she said. “That send off and the welcome back was just unbelievable. Tony was so blown away by that. It was emotional to see all the kids, Boy Scouts and volunteers clapping and singing the National Anthem and thanking Tony for his service. Not only that, the same kind of reception was given to us at every other airport too. This was truly his day.”
Once in Washington, D.C., Baleno toured the World War II Memorial, which debuted in 2004. He was particularly interested in seeing the Massachusetts pillar.
“It can be a tough day for them on these trips because memories do come back,” said DeCourcey. “However, when we got to the actual Memorial, he was very excited to be there. He was really inspired. He didn’t show a lot of emotion, but was just happy to be there with all the other veterans who severed at the same time as he did. We took our time, and saw a lot of things, including Arlington Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Korean War Memorial and the changing of the guard.”
DeCourcey said there are six other World War II veterans at the Soldiers’ Home who also qualify, and while Baleno was the first from the Home to go, she hopes his journey will encourage the others to give it a try.
“Hopefully, all his excitement will work on the others too,” she said.