PEORIA — For Gene Neeley and Dale Bonney, it's a trip of a lifetime.
The two World War II veterans left for France on Wednesday afternoon, on their way to the remembrances of the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, more commonly known as D-Day. Dozens of veterans, nearly all in their 90s, are expected to gather to remember and reflect on the largest amphibious assault of the war. Neeley, 94, of Tremont and Bonney, 94, of Galesburg will travel throughout the area, going to cemeteries, to special dinners and to actual beaches where thousands of men lost their lives. They will be escorted by Phyllis Piraino of East Peoria and Barb Moore of Morton.
“This is the most wonderful thing, to have the opportunity to be selected to do this on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. I am looking forward to relaxing and enjoying the next two weeks," said Neeley.
But for Piraino, who is also one of the leaders of the Greater Peoria Honor Flight, just speaking about the trip gives her goosebumps.
"With Honor Flight, we are always seeing Americans thanking other Americans for what they did. Now we are going to see how others, internationally, are going to honor our Americans," she said.
The trip is not part of Honor Flight, Piraino stressed, though she and Moore are involved with that group and Neeley is "one of the hardest working volunteers." Rather, it's put on by the French group, Veterans back to Normandie, whose aim is to bring as many World War II veterans back to France for what will likely be the last time. Working with Honor Flight, she said, affords the opportunity to network with other groups that help veterans.
The historic nature isn't lost on Piraino, who knows that such gatherings aren't likely to occur often.
"This is a once in a lifetime chance to be with these great men and to give them the honor they deserve," she said.