Bob Luebben was at first a little apprehensive about going on his Honor Flight, July 2. After all, his goal is to be the last surviving World War II veteran in the United States and he figures he needs to live another 23 years to make that happen.
“I figure I got to live to 111,” he said.
Going on a plane might be a little risky, he thought. In the end, he decided to go ahead and chance it.
“It took me a day to say, ‘The hell with it, I’ll go.'”
After a whirlwind tour of the nation’s capital and a visit to the World War II Memorial, Luebben, 88, was greeted by the cheers and hugs of more than two dozen of his neighbors from the Hollywood section of Brookfield in the baggage claim area of Midway Airport. He was stunned by the reception.
“It’s an absolute dream,” he said. “I’m a celebrity!”
It was a Hollywood neighbor, Kathi Krankoski, who urged Luebben to sign up for the Honor Flight, which flies veterans free of charge to Washington D.C. and back in one day.
Honor Flight Chicago raises funds to purchase all of the tickets on a normal commercial flight and then rents buses to transport the veterans — mostly from World War II — to the various sites around the city. The flights are accompanied by “guardians” assigned to each veteran and medical staff (a couple of doctors and up to 10 nurses), who pay for their own flights.
In D.C. the veterans are treated as honored guests, but the real magic happens on the return home. Luebben’s plane was greeted by a water cannon salute as they landed at Midway and by bagpipers and a column of flag-carrying veterans at the gate.
Down in the baggage claim area, Luebben’s neighbors waited with signs and cheers. With well-wishers on hand to greet all of the Honor Flight participants, Krankoski said more than 1,000 people jammed the baggage claim area on July 2.
“It was absolutely marvelous,” said Luebben, who played to the crowd, dancing and generally carrying on.
“I never saw so many cameras trained on one person,” said Krankoski, who has volunteered with Honor Flight Chicago for the past two years and was one of the Hollywood crowd at the airport waiting for Luebben. “I’ve never had so much fun in my life.”
It was a long day for Luebben, who was at Midway Airport at 4 a.m. and didn’t get home until about midnight. But he was up early the next morning to play a round of golf — an almost daily ritual in the summer.
When he was 81, Luebben decided he was “going into training.” He’s a familiar sight in Brookfield, walking everywhere with a backpack slung over his shoulders and carrying a golf club as a walking stick.
“I have muscles in my legs now that I never knew I had,” said Luebben, who got his first taste of walking everywhere in 1945, when he shipped out for Europe as an 18-year-old infantryman. Enlisting on his 18thbirthday in June 1944 in his hometown on Neenah, Wisconsin, Luebben began basic training in Texas in September.
When the German army launched its last counteroffensive — what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge — in December his training was cut short. Every available man was going to shore up depleted rifle companies battling the Germans.
Luebben ended up in Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division — which had been in almost continuous combat since landing in the first wave at Omaha Beach on D-Day. The division suffered a casualty rate of more than 200 percent in Europe, and by January 1945 almost no one who landed in Normandy was still on the line.
The division largely sat out the Battle of the Bulge, holding defensive positions near Aachen, Germany. Luebben earned his Combat Infantryman’s Badge beginning Feb. 23, when the 29th Division crossed the Roer River and the Allied armies began their race across Germany.
By March 1, after taking several German towns, the 29th Division was out of major combat for good. But the walking wasn’t over. By the end of the war, Luebben had walked across Germany to the Elbe River, where U.S. forces were ordered to halt their advance.
“I’ve led a charmed life,” Luebben said.
After college on the G.I. Bill, Luebben married in 1952 and had two sons. He received his master’s degree from the University of Iowa and was recruited as a math teacher by Riverside-Brookfield High School, where he taught and coached golf from 1957 to 1977.
He resigned at the age of 50 and got into the limousine business, which he did for another 30 years. His brush with greatness was driving Shirley Jones, who was in town doing ad work for Sunbeam.
With Honor Flight Chicago in operation since 2008, many of the veterans who go know about the post-trip welcome home and the “mail call” of letters from neighbors, family and officials that each veteran receives during the flight home.
It was all a complete surprise for Luebben.
“By this stage, most of the guys know about the welcome home,” said Krankoski. “He had no clue. He was flabbergasted.”
Anyone wanting information about future Honor Flights can visit online at www.honorflightchicago.org.