Honor Flight taps well of emotions for Highland Park World War II vet

Fresh out of high school in 1942, Leonard Birnbaum enlisted in the armed services as World War II was raging. The 18-year-old became part of the 871st Airborne Engineer Aviation Battalion that constructed airfields in the South Pacific theater.

Like most veterans of his era, Birnbaum didn’t care to dwell on the war and its memories after his return home on New Year’s Eve of 1945. Instead, he reunited with his high school prom date, Marjorie, now his wife of 67 years, and got on with his career as an artist and designer. He created the “Original Penguin” logo for Munsingwear golf shirts and later designed houseware products with a focus on clocks as design director for Burwood Products Company.

Birnbaum’s war recollections came into sharp focus in late June, when the 89-year-old Highland Park resident and 10 other veterans were flown to Washington, D.C. by Lake County Honor Flight, part of the national Honor Flight network. The group’s singular mission is to allow veterans to visit the memorials built in their honor while they are still able.

Birnbaum and his oldest son, Marc, arose well before dawn June 20 to meet up with other veterans and guardians for a flight out of Milwaukee. During the three-day trip, they visited the Iwo Jima Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial and witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

They also visited a new memorial honoring the fallen of the U.S. Air Force. There, one name in particular stood out in Birnbaum’s memory — that of ace U.S. fighter pilot Richard Bong. Bong shot down 40 Japanese aircraft during World War II and his record eclipsed the record set by pilot Eddie Rickenbacker during World War I.

Birnbaum not only knew Bong while they were stationed at Port Moresby, New Guinea. One of Birnbaum’s freelance side jobs as an artist during the war was to paint the name of Bong’s wife on the side of his plane at his request.

Birnbaum’s son, Marc, said one of the most emotional encounters occurred when his father was swapping stories with a crew chief responsible for repairing P51 Mustang fighter planes. The two discovered they had attended the same basic training camp in Massachusetts and were on the same ship to New Guinea.

At one point during the exchange, Birnbaum’s emotions welled to the point that he turned around to regain his composure. Two young ladies witnessed the moment, were overcome with tears themselves and walked over to hug the veteran they’d never met.

Birnbaum also was presented with thank-you letters from Ben and Caleb, two boys living in the Washington, D.C., area. “Without your help, we could be in a worse predicament than we are now,” wrote one.

Before the trip even started, Birnbaum and his wife, Marjorie, were feted at the Sunrise Senior Living, where the longtime Highland Parkers recently took up residence. Executive Director Barbara Palac planned the surprise after Birnbaum mentioned the upcoming honor flight around the time they moved in.

“As they came down the stairs, everybody was there to applaud them,” said Palac, of the party that included cake, balloons and festivities. “A lot of our residents are from that era,” she added. “They either served in World War II or Korea. Because they are in that age range, they had a personal connection.”

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