Last summer, when Tom Grotovsky heard about Honor Flight Chicago at a Fourth of July event, the Mokena man couldn’t wait to bring back information to his friend, Albert Gencur, 86, of Joliet, a man whose only living family, Grotovsky said, is a nephew in Ohio.
There was just one problem. Gencur, who served in the U.S. Navy and was stationed in the South Pacific from 1944 to 1945, didn’t want to go.
“I didn’t know anyone except Tom,” said Gencur, who couldn’t comprehend the point of such a trip without family and friends to hail his return. “But then he told me about all the things I’d see. I’d never been to Washington D.C. To go was a pleasure and an honor.”
Honor Flight Chicago is a program that provides free airplane rides to Washington D.C. for World War II veterans, regardless of their role in the war. They spend several hours at the National World War II Memorial and others: the Lincoln Memorial, Iwo Jima Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Korean War Veterans Memorial.
Gencur agreed to participate in Honor Flight Chicago for one reason. He trusted Grotovsky, whom he met at the Starbucks on Jefferson Street in Joliet because there were no empty tables.
Grotovsky, who at 51 is a generation younger than Gencur, noticed Gencur standing with no place to sit and motioned for Gencur to share his table. Soon they were scheduling meetings several times a week, when Gencur was available.
“He goes to the gym at Inwood five days a week,” Grotovsky said. “It takes a lot of motivation to get up and go to the gym every day, especially when you’re in your 80s. My mom passed away when I was a kid, so I learn from elderly people. They’re very interesting if you take time to listen to them.”
Gencur feels the same about Grotovsky, who regularly visits when Gencur is in the hospital, brings him communion and talks about “the good and bad in life,” which Gencur treasures.
“He’s a very nice person, always smiling, like a Cheshire cat,” Gencur said. “He never gets angry and he can take a joke. He’s truthful and describes everything immaculately. We always have a splendid time. He’s one solid person.”
On Oct. 2, Gencur rose at 2 a.m. to be ready for Grotovsky, who was providing Gencur with a ride to Midway Airport in Chicago but could not go on the trip. Gencur didn’t know any of the other 92 World War II veterans on the plane but he soon was chatting away with them.
“Then I took a nap,” Gencur said. “It was an hour and a half to Washington D.C. and I can fall asleep quickly.”
With so many veterans visiting so many sites, wheelchairs were used to make transportation easy, Gencur said. Each man had an assigned “guardian.” Gencur’s was a “young enlisted sailor,” an example of the “new generation pushing the old generation,” Grotovsky said.
The entire day in Washington D.C. was a “magnificent obsession,” said Gencur, who especially enjoyed the brass bands that played the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “A Seaman’s Hymn.”
Honor Flight Chicago returned to Chicago about 10 p.m. Greeting the veterans, Grotovsky said, were about 200 people, including family and friends, high school groups and members of the community.
“Everyone, including the kids, all wanted to shake our hands, talk to us and thank us. It was very different, very inspirational,” Gencur said. “At first I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ Then I loved it.”
The “welcome home” reception was quite different from Gencur’s experience when his service time ended.
“Back then, there was no welcome, no knowledge of post-traumatic stress syndrome and no counseling,” Grotovsky said. “They simply returned to their families and went to work.”
Gencur married and raised two sons. In 1965, he earned a degree in sales and advertising from Ohio State University. Eventually Gencur moved to Joliet, as it was close to his steel mill accounts.
He rarely shared his World War II experiences, especially one that happened while conversing with several friends in the Philippines.
“All of a sudden, a shot rang out and the person in front of me fell down,” Gencur said. “A sniper had shot him in the head.”
For more information on Honor Flight Chicago, visit honorflightchicago.org/.