BROKEN BOW—From anchors aweigh to flying off into the wild blue yonder, two Custer County World War II United States Navy veterans were honored with a Dream Flight on Saturday, August 28.
As part of Operation September Freedom, the Dream Flights foundation has been honoring as many World War II veterans as possible from August 1 to September 30, 2021 with a flight in a Boeing Stearman biplane, the same aircraft used to train aviators during WWII.
Both Don Denesia, 97, and Walter R. Hendricks, 94, were honored with a 20-minute flight in the open-cockpit biplane that soared 1,000 feet above family and friends on Saturday morning. Both men live at Brookestone View Nursing Home in Broken Bow and both served in the Navy during WWII.
Dream Flights was created in 2011 by Darryl & Carol Fisher of Nevada along with their family in support of the love of seniors and aviation.
Nebraska volunteer pilot Scott DeLong is a spray pilot and flies out of Fairmont. Scott’s wife Jan DeLong said they have been with the Dream Flights foundation for three years. Currently they are only flying WWII vets but will go back to flying all veterans next year. Scott had the honor of piloting for Denesia and Hendricks from the Broken Bow Airport.
“Scott’s always loved World War II history, airplanes, and this was just right up his alley to get involved,” Jan DeLong told KCNI/KBBN on Saturday. “It’s just a lot of fun. We’ve met so many really great people from the veterans to their families, to the nursing home staffs, everybody has just been awesome.”
Don Denesia was born and raised in Wayne, Neb. and drafted near the end of 1943. He joined the Navy and became a petty officer from 1944-1946. According to a bio submitted to KCNI/KBBN, Don’s training took place in several locations across the U.S. and Don took time to go to Omaha to attend his mother’s funeral.
Denesia was the Fire Controlman on a LSM, which was an amphibious assault ship. He served his time in the Pacific Theater, visiting many islands after they had been secured while enduring many bad storms along the way. He arrived at Okinawa four days before it was bombed. Don met his best friend and future business partner, Ray Brown, while in the Navy.
Don’s daughter Linda Carlson told KCNI/KBBN that while in Virginia for training, Ray Brown asked “Is anybody from Nebraska?” and that’s how their friendship began.
Don and Ray were longtime business partners and building contractors, building more than 300 nursing homes around the United States after starting out pouring driveways and parking lots. Ray Brown passed away in 2011.
Linda Carlson said her dad loves Broken Bow, he’s accomplished a lot in his lifetime by being a hard worker and keeping his faith. Don owned three planes throughout his business ventures and sadly, Don’s father passed away in a plane crash in 1952 but Linda said the love of flying was strong in her family.
“Dad has accomplished a lot. He’s a trooper, he’s a worker, he’s faithful—he’s got his Catholic faith—he’s just been a hardworking guy, grew up on the farm. The love of flying is in his blood,” Carlson told KCNI/KBBN.
Don and his wife Lucille had six kids together and Don now has 13 grandchildren. Lucille passed away in 1985. Don married Angenette Adams in 1995 and they were married for 26 years before she passed away in 2020. Don will be 98 in October.
Walter R. Hendricks was born in January of 1927 and grew up south of Callaway, Neb. In 1944, Walt chose to enlist in the United States Navy to help with the war effort. Because he was only 16 at the time, his father was required to sign paperwork agreeing to Walt’s enlistment. Walt trained at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center located in Illinois.
Upon completion of his training, Walt was transferred to the United States Naval Air Station located at Alameda, California. His duties there included loading ammunition onto aircraft carriers bound for points overseas. He was honorable discharged in July of 1946.
When Walt was asked if he would be interested in taking a ride in a vintage war airplane, he was immediately interested in this venture. His statement was, as long as he could, he wanted to take advantage of any opportunity presented to him and looked forward to the plane ride with much anticipation.
The Life Enrichment Coordinator at Brookestone Maria Pickering said Dream Flights reached out to the nursing home hoping to honor and recognize any residents who served in WWII.
“To go up in the plane and be honored for their service to our country and just the experience of getting back into the plane from their time. Going up [in the plane] will last with them for the rest of their lives,” Pickering said.