Fresh out of high school in 1941 and with the United States declaring war later that year, Ed Meksto and his friends were hanging around a gas station shooting the breeze. What we’re they going to do, enlist or wait to be drafted?

Less than four years later, Meksto would be looking out the window of a B-25 bomber, which he was piloting, as he made bombing runs over Rabaul, a one-time Japanese stronghold in the Pacific, now isolated and at the mercy of Marine and Navy air forces.

“By the time I got out there, everything was really downhill,” Meksto said of his time as part of Marine Air Group 61, based on the Pacific Island of Emirau, which had been seized by U.S. Marines in March 1944.

Meksto said he only remembers flying a couple of those missions over Rabaul, which the Allied forces in the Pacific largely had bypassed and cut off. He remained with his squadron on Emirau until August 1945 when they were transferred to the Marine base at Malabang on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines to be readied for the invasion of Japan.

“While we were en route from Emirau to Malabang, that’s when they dropped the big one,” Meksto said.

With the war over and Meksto without enough points to immediately return stateside, he spent his remaining days in the Pacific as a transport pilot, separating – temporarily it turned out – in June 1946. 

But, his military career would be overshadowed by a long career as a commercial airline pilot and, in Riverside, as its lone three-term village president.

On Monday, May 29, Meksto, who will turn 94 the day before, will be the honored veteran at the Riverside Memorial Day ceremony at 10 a.m. in the St. Mary Church Parish Center, 126 Herrick Road (see accompanying story for details).

Meksto grew up in Maywood and graduated from Proviso High School in the spring of 1941. Soon after war was declared in December 1941, Meksto enlisted in the Navy, accompanied by a friend, he said, “Because I wanted to be a pilot.”

After they enlisted the two young men looked at each other and said, “What did we just do?”

Neither had been in an airplane before.

So the two went out to Elmhurst, where there was an air field at Lake Street and Route 83, and had their first ride in the air.

“It was great,” Meksto said.

It took several months before Meksto was accepted into the Navy’s V5 pilot training program. He was sent to Ball State Teachers College in Muncie, Indiana, where he earned his private pilot’s license flying Piper Cubs.

Then he waited some more until there was an opening in the Navy’s pre-flight training program. In 1943 he was sent first to University of Iowa and then to the U.S. Naval Air Station at Ottumwa, Iowa, for flight training.

In 1944, he was sent to the Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, for intermediate flight training and it was there he chose to sign on with the Marines (he wanted to steer clear of aircraft carriers if he could) and was commissioned a second lieutenant.

It wasn’t until later that year he shipped off to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina, and that’s where he learned to pilot the B-25 bomber before shipping out to the Pacific in 1945.

His transition from bomber pilot to transport pilot after the war presaged Meksto’s 33-year career with United Airlines, though he attended accounting school on the GI Bill and worked briefly at the Electromotive plant in McCook after separating from the Marines in 1946.

Initially, airline companies turned Meksto down because he didn’t have an instrument rating – he didn’t have certification for flying on instruments only. In the late 1940s, he obtained the rating at the Elmhurst airfield where he’d had his first plane ride and was hired by Capital Airlines, which later was merged into United.

But before he could do much in the way of commercial flying, he was called back to active duty by the Marines in 1952 during the Korean War. This time, Meksto didn’t leave the states, flying C119 transport planes and spending six months as an instrument instructor at Cherry Point. He separated again in 1954, was promoted to major and finally discharged in February 1959.

In October 1954, Meksto married his wife, Esther, a suburban Milwaukee native, who worked as a flight attendant for Capital Airlines.

The family lived in Berwyn and then moved to Riverside in 1962 after Esther read a feature article about Blythe Park School in Life Magazine.

“I didn’t want a subdivision,” Esther Meksto said. “I mostly wanted a small-town community with a village effect.”

They moved across the street from the school and lived there for the next three decades.

In 1973, Meksto won his first election after being slated by the Riverside Community Caucus for trustee. It was the start of a 17-year stint in village government.

“With the airline I had a lot of time off. You could only fly so many hours a week, so I said, ‘OK,'” Meksto said. 

Soon after, the village president at the time asked Meksto to serve as the board’s representative for the 1975 Riverside Centennial celebration.

In 1977, Meksto ran for village president and would end up serving three terms, until 1989. He’d later be named Riverside Person of the Year by the Lions Club and Chamber of Commerce and was the grand marshal of the July 4 parade.

“We just loved the town,” said Meksto who, along with Esther, splits time now between their home in Palm Beach, Florida, and their apartment in Hinsdale.

And, driving around has replaced flying as one of Meksto’s favorite things to do.

“What I really loved about flying was that every time I took off, it was something new every time. The U.S. is a big country and I saw pretty much the whole United States,” he said. “Now I drive to see what I saw from up above.”

Riverside Legion to host Memorial Day ceremony

Riverside American Legion Post 488 will host its annual Memorial Day ceremony on Monday, May 29 at 10 a.m. at the St. Mary Church Parish Center, 126 Herrick Road in Riverside.

The ceremony will feature patriotic music; recognition of Riverside servicemen killed in action from World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War; presentations from local scout troops, a Navy bell ceremony and a 21-gun salute.

The honored veteran at this year's ceremony is a former village trustee and president, F. Edward Meksto, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps during both World War II and the Korean War.

In addition, the USO of Illinois will be present, collecting items needed each day by active military service men and women overseas. High-demand items include toothpaste and toothbrushes, wet wipes, gum, beef jerky, soap and other personal care products, noodle cups, books, magazines, DVDs and $10 Walmart gift cards.

Residents from Riverside and surrounding villages are invited to attend. The church parking lot can be accessed from East Burlington Street or Herrick Road. There are several handicap parking spaces and the parish center is air-conditioned and handicapped-accessible.

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