Marty Poenisch of Burr Ridge was one of about 90 military veterans who traveled to Washington, D.C. July 11, courtesy of Honor Flight Chicago. The non-profit organization, founded in 2008, seeks to recognize veterans, especially of World War II, with “a day of honor, remembrance and celebration from a proud and grateful nation.”
Although Poenisch said participating in the Honor Flight was one of the greatest experiences of his life, the 86-year-old active member of VFW Post 2838 in Darien and American Legion Post 338 in Westmont nearly didn’t go.
As seems to be fairly typical for those of The Greatest Generation, Poenisch downplayed his role in World War II, certain that other veterans were more deserving of a trip on the Honor Flight.
“I was asked to go three different times and I kept saying no,” Poenisch said. “I said, let the other vets go. I really didn’t do that much, not like a lot of other guys did.”
Military service inspired a lifetime of patriotism
Poenish was a teenager living with his family in Chicago while World War II raged on overseas. And, like many teenage boys, he didn’t always see eye to eye with his father.
“I wanted to join the service, but my dad wanted me to learn a trade,” Poenisch said. “I guess I thought I knew everything in those days,” he said with a laugh.
So, in 1944, at age 17, Poenisch left his parents’ home in Chicago and headed off on a road trip with a buddy. While hitchhiking through Texas on his 18th birthday a couple of months later, the carefree adventurer stopped off to register for the military draft, as was required of all 18-year-olds at the time.
Just a few months later, on Sept. 23, 1944, Uncle Sam called – and before he knew it, 18-year-old Marty Poenisch was heading off on a new adventure, courtesy of the U.S. Army.
“I took an aptitude test and went into the Army Air Corps,” Poenisch said. His destination: the South Sea island of Guam, where he worked as an airplane engine mechanic, keeping the Air Corps’ powerful B-29 bombers running smoothly.
After he completed his military service in 1948, Poenisch used the skills he had learned while serving his country and went to work as a diesel mechanic at International Harvester for a time and, until his retirement 38-1/2 years later, as a machinery repairman at American Forge in Chicago.
But Poenisch gained far more than mechanical skills while serving his country. His military service instilled in him an unending love of country and sense of patriotism – as well as a profound reverence for the symbol of it all.
“There’s no other flag like the U.S. flag,” Marty Poenisch said proudly. “Our flag is the best in the world. The red stands for blood, the white for purity and the blue for the heaven and stars. It’s just beautiful.”
Although he may be retired, at age 86, Poenisch acts as an enthusiastic ambassador of sorts --carrying an ample supply of miniature American flags to hand out as he travels throughout the community, proudly flying Old Glory at his home, and working to ensure that worn-out flags are disposed of in a respectful manner.
Over the years, Poenisch has earned the title, “The Flag Man” for collecting and accepting worn, threadbare or damaged American flags and retiring them through ceremonial burnings several times a year. Poenisch even has a special red, white and blue receptacle at his home where the flags are carefully stored until they can be retired.
The Honor Flight experience
Looking back, Poenisch said that despite his initial reluctance to participate in the Honor Flight, he’s really glad he went.
“It was just the greatest experience of my life,” Poenisch said. “Each vet had a person assigned to them to help them through the process and answer all their questions. You just sit there and enjoy everything.”
Although Poenisch certainly knows his way around a B-29 bomber, and had flown on B-17s, C-47s and C-46s during his military service, a couple of experiences had escaped him until July 11.
“I had never been to Washington, D.C., and it was my first commercial flight,” Poenisch said with a laugh.
Poenisch said he was genuinely impressed by the way in which the Honor Flight volunteers handled the entire trip, which packed more activities into one day than he would ever have thought possible.
The day began with an early-morning flight from Midway Airport, a heroes’ welcome in Washington, D.C. followed by a whirlwind tour of the city’s monuments and museums -- and a return flight home topped off by a patriotic celebration shared with friends, family and community members at Midway that evening.
“It was so smooth,” the World War II veteran said. “If anybody wants to know how to run things – any city or community – they should just ask the Honor Flight people. It was perfection.”