Phil Abendschein remembers how many people were waiting for him when he got off the train in Neenah after serving in World War II.
“When I got home, my mother was still living. I had one brother. She sent him to the depot every night, because she knew I was coming. One of my best friends and my brother and their girlfriends – that was my welcome home committee. And, I didn’t have another one of those until last Thursday (Oct. 21),” he said.
Abendschein was among the approximately 100 World War II veterans on the Oct. 21 Old Glory Honor Flight that left Outagamie County Regional Airport in Appleton that morning for a trip to Washington, D.C., arriving back later that same day.
It was the sixth such flight out of Appleton.
Abendschein, who lives with his wife, Nancy, in rural Weyauwega, said, “I’m sure there had to be 1,000 people there when I got back.”
The veterans were in a curtained-off waiting area at the airport, and he was among the first to see the hundreds of people there to welcome them back.
“I was looking for Nancy and Tom (Vanden Boogaard), and here was all these people,” Abendschein said.
Vanden Boogaard is the couple’s neighbor and friend. He had left with them at 4 a.m. that day, driving them from their home to the airport.
His wife, Sandi, got up that early, too, and stood in their driveway, waving a flag.
“That is the way the whole trip went,” Abendschein said. Wherever he went that day, there were people thanking and welcoming him.
The Neenah native was 18 years old when he was drafted into the war in 1944.
After passing his physical and being sworn in, he rode the electric railroad from Milwaukee to Chicago. From there, he went to Fort McClellan in Alabama for 17 weeks of basic infantry training.
“My training was delayed, because on Dec. 14 my dad died,” he said. “I had a 10-day furlough. I had to leave Christmas Eve to go back to Alabama. I spent Christmas Day on a train.”
The following June, Abendschein was sent to Fort Mead in Maryland. He received a weekend pass, which happened to be over July 4, and he spent it in Washington, D.C.
Next, he headed West by train, going through Chicago and Neenah where he could see his mother, brother and friends waving.
“It was really exciting,” he said. “There was a war on. I didn’t know if we’d ever get back again.”
Abendschein rode the train to Camp Adair in Oregon and then to Seattle where he was among the approximately 2,000 soldiers put on a ship that was an attack transport.
“We picked up a convoy and went up to Okinawa in mid-August,” he said. “They had a replacement depot there. There were several divisions stationed there that had fought in the Okinawa campaign. I was new. I was a replacement.”
Abendschein was in fire direction. “It was our job,” he said, “to aim the guns.”
Eventually, they went through Tokyo where he said there “were miles and miles of nothing except streets. If you can imagine going to Chicago and seeing no houses.”
From there, the 27th Division that he was part of went north. They set up a place to stay. It was Thanksgiving 1945.
“We were basically pulling guard duty there,” Abendschein said.
When the 27th Division was disbanded, he was transferred into the 97th Division. With that division, he also did guard duty until there was an opening for a cook, and he volunteered.
After doing that a couple of weeks, Abendschein learned they were looking for someone to go to cooks and bakers school. He volunteered and learned how to be an Army cook during the six-week course.
Upon returning from school, someone else had his cook job. He was put in an office, working in communications and becoming a legal clerk.
“My job was to write up changes and specifications for those arrested for crimes against the United States,” the 84-year-old Abendschein said. “It was very interesting. I did that the longest time.”
During that time, he met Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, which he described as a “thrill” and “one of my highlights.”