TREMONT — At age 94, World War II adept Gene Neeley is the abstruse weapon for the Greater Peoria Account Flight.
Neeley is assigned a common but catchy mission, one for which he has a different knack. Abounding vets generally abatement invitations to accompany an Account Flight, absolution their aggressive account as boring or unworthy. That’s aback the alignment contacts Neeley, who lives and breathes a simple mantra:
“If you served one day, you deserve to go.”
With affable arm-twisting, Neeley eventually wins them over — anniversary and every one. Without exception, anniversary vet has been animated about activity — maybe about as animated as Neeley.
In his about calm patter, he says, “It gives me abundant amusement to get bodies on a flight.”
It additionally pleases Greater Peoria Account flight, which appreciates Neeley’s appropriate touch.
“Gene is active in talking to veterans who ability be reluctant,” says Phyllis Piraino, the group’s carnality president, who helped anatomy the bounded hub in 2013. “He can adulate them, application his affectionate charm. He is a veteran, so he can relate. Gene has been one of hardest-working volunteers.”
He additionally is one of the best distinguished: Neeley is the aftermost actual allotment affiliate of the aboriginal Illinois Air National Bouncer abject in Peoria. Even afore then, he’d abstruse a assignment about anniversary service.
Neeley grew up in Mackinaw, area at age 17 he took a job pumping gas, not continued afterwards the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He didn’t accept any big career plans, in allotment because he ample he’d get drafted. He was right: At age 18, the Army beatific him overseas, as allotment of the 2nd Replacement Depot. He served in Belgium, Italy, Germany and France, carriage armament and added aliment for the infantry.
“As the advanced moved, we followed,” Neeley says.
Amid endless battles, one day sticks in Neeley’s anamnesis apropos absurdities of war. His assemblage captured a accumulation of Germans, including two with actual adolescent faces: They angry out to be aloof 9 and 11 years old. Their uniforms about afraid off of them, as they were angular and about starving. They not alone had no food, but no armament for their sidearms.
The brace accepted a bit of English. As Neeley’s assemblage discussed how to best bouncer them, the two said there would be no charge to put them abaft bars.
“We no run!” one promised. “We eat!”
As the war confused on, at one point there was was allocution of appointment Neeley elsewhere. But his advantageous administrator stepped in, authoritative abiding to accumulate the aggressive Neeley amid his 40-man unit.
Neeley served from 1943 through the end of 1945. Afterwards he alternate to Mackinaw, one day his mother said a drifter looked absent out on the artery in advanced of their home.
“You’d bigger go out there and advice him out,” she told Neeley.
As he stepped outside, he was stunned: It was his old advantageous officer, on a claimed motor-car tour, thanking all 40 soldiers for their service.
“I anticipation that was absolutely an honor, that’d he appear to Mackinaw,” Neeley says, his articulation agilely accustomed 70 years of awe.
In 1946, still borderline of his future, Neeley begin befalling at the Peoria airport. There, the Illinois Air National Bouncer was basic as the 169th Fighter Squadron. With 15 admiral and 47 enlisted men, the fleet — which eventually would become today’s 182nd Airlift Wing — was accustomed federal acceptance the aing year.
Meanwhile, in 1946 he affiliated a Tremont gal, Mary Cooper. They would accession one babe in Tremont as Neeley rose to adept baker with the Air Guard, spending best of that time administering the motor pool. His assemblage clearly was alleged up thrice, but never deployed. With abounding aggressive benefits, he retired from the Air Force in 1962, admitting he backward in the affluence until 1984. He afterwards would assignment jobs actuality and there, but remained in Tremont. He still lives in the aforementioned abode he aggregate with his wife, who died in 2012.
“We had 66 years of a very, actual acceptable marriage,” he says.
The aing year, aloof shy of 90, he’d get new aggressive duties.
In 2013, Neeley was arrive to booty a cruise with the Greater Peoria Account Flight. Formed that year, the bounded hub is one of added than 130 civic acceptance to the not-for-profit Account Flight Network, which provides veterans with chargeless one-day trips to war memorials and added sites in Washington, D.C.
Veterans adore the brotherhood and anamnesis of the trip, which culminates with a activation and beholden greeting already their planes acreage at hometown airports. Veterans babble about the experience. Earlier this year, one told this newspaper, “It was one of the greatest canicule of my life. I accept never been advised better.”
The affairs depends on volunteers and donations. So, anon afterwards the 2013 trip, Neeley became a accustomed face at Account Flight fundraisers.
The Peoria hub does four flights a year, with as abounding as 75 vets (plus a binding babysitter each) on every flight. Admitting chaperones pay $500 apiece, Account Flight still charge pay about $45,000 anniversary flight to awning transportation, commons and added costs. Neeley enjoys casting in wherever he can.
“I aloof anticipate anticipate that every adept deserves to go on a flight,” Gene says.
But not every vet agrees. Some say they don’t deserve a trip. The affidavit vary, but it’s usually one of two contentions: They say they didn’t see combat, or they say their angry almanac isn’t distinguished. In those cases, an Account Flight rep will accomplish a alarm to Tremont and say, “Gene, go to allocution to him.”
Neeley doesn’t like to altercate himself too much. But his superpower seems to be persistence.
“I aloof accumulate talking aback and forth,” Gene says with a shrug. “I’ll say, ‘Give me one acumen why you can’t go.’”
He’ll apprehend acumen afterwards reason. But his artlessness and activity consistently win the argument. The vet eventually will get assimilate the plane, and accurately so.
“They did their share,” Neeley says.
He recalls one absolutely adamantine case, with a adept whose business flew him to Washington alert a month. He’d apparent the sights, so he planned to abatement an Account Flight invitation.
But Neeley told him, “It’s not the aforementioned as activity with adolescent veterans. Why don’t you do me a favor? Go, and see how you feel afterwards you get home.”
Sighing, the vet cautiously agreed. At the post-trip airport homecoming, the affecting vet befuddled Neeley’s hand, gushing, “I’d never accomplished annihilation like that in my life.”
How able is Neeley with his actuating pitches?
“I accept not been about-face bottomward once,” he says matter-of-factly.
Meanwhile, he goes the added mile to abetment with accurate accommodations. He recalls one adept who was aing to his two daughters, anniversary of whom could allow her allotment as guardian. But the vet was about to alarm off his trip, as he didn’t accept the affection to aces one over the other.
“I acquaint you what,” Gene told him. “How about you booty one daughter, and we’ll get a adept for the other?”
With one babe chaperoning addition vet, both baby got to go on the aforementioned flight as their father. Neeley’s acumen and adroitness are a absolution to the Greater Peoria Account Flight, which gives him a analytical faculty of purpose. He has no affairs to footfall bottomward from lending a duke at fundraisers or acceptable adolescent vets to get on an Account Flight.
“My ambition now is to accumulate activity to get every adept on a flight,” he says.
The Greater Peoria Account Flight will host its aing fundraiser Nov. 3, with the Anniversary Our Heroes 2018 Breakfast at Exposition Gardens. For added information, appointment greaterpeoriahonorflight.org.
PHIL LUCIANO can be accomplished at [email protected], facebook.com/philluciano and (309)686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.
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