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June 6, 2014

Two local WWII vets selected for Honor Flight

Today marks 70 years since D-Day launch

By Denise Richardson Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Two Oneonta World War II veterans who spent their careers working on the railroad have another note in common — the opportunity this year to visit the WWII memorial in the nation’s capital.

Donald Stiefel, 88, who served in the Navy, will join other veterans on a Leatherstocking Honor Flight trip Albany to Washington, D.C., on Saturday, a day after the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

“I’m very pleased to be able to do that,” Stiefel, who worked 43 years as a carman for the Delaware and Hudson Railway, said Thursday.

Fred Lewis, 91, was part of the Twin Tiers Honor Flight tour that took veterans from Binghamton to Washington on April 12. Lewis, also a D&H retiree, said that April day was among the best in his life.

Both local men have memories about D-Day and their service to the nation.

On June 6, 1944, D-Day kicked off the Battle of Normandy, which lasted from June to August and resulted in the Allies liberating Western Europe from Nazi Germany, according to the Associated Press. The operation involved 156,000 American, British and Canadian forces landing on five beaches from 7,000 ships and landing craft along a 50-mile stretch of the heavily fortified coast of France’s Normandy region.

Stiefel served in the Navy as a gunner’s mate on convoy ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean from March 1944 to May 1946. He said he made about five trips across the North Atlantic from the East Coast to England, Belgium, France and other destinations.

“It was rough duty,” Stiefel said. “We went into Normandy a week after D-Day.”

The ship was in the bay for about a month as supplies were unloaded, said Stiefel, who was 18 when he joined the Navy.

“I think I could have stayed out — I was working on the railroad — but I didn’t want to,” he said during an interview on his porch at Peaceful Flats in the town of Oneonta.

Stiefel said he is honored to be among recognized veterans included on the Honor Flight and is excited to make his first visit to Washington, D.C.

“I can’t wait to get there,” he said. Roy Stiefel registered his father for the trip, and will be among the guardians to accompany the veterans.

The Honor Flight program has been working to help WWII veterans see their memorial, which is dedicated to their service and sacrifice. The efforts carry urgency as hundreds of those veterans die each day, the organization’s website said.

World War II was the most widespread war in history with more than 100 million people serving in military units, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. About 16 million Americans served during WWII, the department said, and about 1 million, including about 54,100 in New York, are alive, though the number changes as about 555 die each day.

The Leatherstocking Honor Flight is among more than 100 hubs in the nonprofit Honor Flight Network providing trips to Washington for America’s WWII veterans free of charge.

The inaugural Honor Flight Tour took place in May 2005 from Springfield, Ohio, after the World War II memorial was completed in 2004, the organization’s website said.

Leatherstocking Honor Flight, based in Cobleskill, has taken more than 710 WWII veterans from 15 counties to Washington, according to the hub’s website.

Many veterans from the area have gone on Honor Flight trips.

Lewis was on the first Twin Tiers Honor Flight.

“It was wonderful.” said Lewis, who was quick to share a narrative of every stop and the personal attention that each veteran received. “I’m still living it.”

Lewis, who was accompanied by his son, Jim, said the Twin Tiers program took veterans to memorials for veterans of Vietnam and Korean wars, to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery and to the Marine Corps memorial. Their buses drove by the Pentagon, and a guide pointed out where a plane hit the building on 9/11, he said.

Lewis said crowds were at the Greater Binghamton Airport awaiting the veterans’ return, and their presence and applause were remarkable.

“That was really impressive,” he said while taking a break from watching a televised Yankees game at his Oneonta home on Thursday.

Lewis was a trainman on the D&H, including 32 years working as a conductor. He joined the Army when he was 20 years old.

Lewis served as a private first-class in the 729th Railway Operating Battalion, working in service and supplies, from December 1942 to December 1945. His unit landed at Omaha Beach eight days after D-Day, he said.

Completion of the National WWII Memorial was overdue and not timely enough for many veterans to visit, Lewis said. Whether a visit to the site is during the 70th anniversary year of D-Day or another time, seeing the tribute is significant, said Lewis, who thrice has visited the memorial.

“It’s great,” he said.