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May 20, 2019 1:43 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Honor Flight Transports Two Local Veterans To The War Memorials In Washington, D.C.

Louis Mosconi showing off some of his thank you cards sent to him from students all across America.   ELIZABETH VESPE
May 21, 2019 1:48 PM

A bumper sticker on Patrick Ferguson’s car reads: “The Forgotten War—Korea.” Mr. Ferguson, an 88-year-old North Haven resident, and Louis Mosconi, an 83-year-old Montauk resident, both served in the Korean War. For decades afterward, neither had managed to make a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the Korean War Veterans Monument.

This year, on Saturday, May 11, Mr. Ferguson and Mr. Mosconi, along with 48 other Korean War and World War II veterans, flew to the nation’s capital with Honor Flight—a nonprofit organization that honors American veterans by taking them to Washington to visit the war memorials at no cost.

The Korean War began in 1950 between North Korea and South Korea, when the North invaded the South following a series of clashes along the border. It’s known in the United States as “the forgotten war” because press coverage of the 1950s conflict was censored, and its history often is overshadowed by World War II and the Vietnam War.

The Honor Flight group left MacArthur Airport in Islip on May 11 just after 6 a.m. for Baltimore, where the veterans and their escorts—volunteer companions called Guardian Angels—boarded two buses to travel from the airport to the Korean War Memorial, World War II Memorial on the National Mall and Arlington National Cemetery, among other sites. They returned later that night.

A few days after the trip, on Thursday, May 16, Mr. Ferguson sat in his living room, the coffee table strewn with photos and memorabilia from his time in the U.S. Air Force. One item was his U.S. Air Force cap from 1952. He placed the cap on his head and began to speak of his service, and what the Honor Flight trip meant to him and his family.

Mr. Ferguson was born in the Bronx, but when he was 4, his family moved back to Ireland. Because of that, he has dual citizenship in America and Ireland, which made him eligible for the U.S. Air Force.

Mr. Ferguson was working in the accounting office of an Irish newspaper when he learned that a friend planned to joined the Air Force—and with only 6 pounds in his pocket, Mr. Ferguson enlisted as well. He got approval to join from the U.S. Embassy in Dublin and was sent to a barracks in England for basic training.

During the war, he spent most of his time in England, specializing in accounting for the Air Force.

Mr. Ferguson recalled breaking his gun down into 50 parts during basic training, and putting it back together, only to do it several more times as the drill instructor kept a watchful eye on the men. Although none of them ended up actively fighting in Korea, they all were trained for combat.

Larry Hagman, who would become a famous actor, was in Mr. Ferguson’s platoon. Mr. Hagman’s mother was Mary Martin, a famous Broadway singer and actress. “She was a star, known all over the world. Larry was able to get tickets for all of the drill instructors,” Mr. Ferguson said in between laughs. “At the end of basic training, none of us got a stripe [an advancement in rank] except for one—Larry Hagman.”

Mr. Ferguson was later deployed to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. After the war, he moved to the Bronx to work in accounting for Gulf Oil, and soon after, he met his wife, Marge. The couple built their home on North Haven 35 years ago and have been living there full time since 1994.

The morning of the Honor Flight trip, Mr. Ferguson and his son, Patrick, who accompanied his father—each veteran is partnered with a Guardian Angel to help them navigate the memorials, and assist with wheelchairs, if needed—woke up at 2:30 a.m. They arrived in Islip at 4:30.

“We were the last two to get there. Some of the guys were so excited to get going and showed up at 3:15,” Mr. Ferguson joked. “They had tea, coffee, cakes, breakfast, everything ready for us in the terminal.”

Mr. Ferguson said that when the group landed in Baltimore, hundreds of military personnel, families, children and bystanders were waiting in the terminal to greet the veterans. “We shook hands with everyone. There were so many people … the crowds were mind-boggling.

“I was delighted to meet and talk to everyone. I was getting to know the other veterans … there’s a couple of veterans I hope to stay in touch with,” he went on.

“I was emotional,” Mr. Ferguson said of seeing the Korean War memorial. Even so, he said, “Everyone was very happy. You feel very good meeting your fellow veterans and seeing the monuments.”

Total strangers were coming up and wanting to shake the veterans’ hands as they walked from monument to monument. “That made us all emotional. You don’t ask for it, and it’s so long overdue,” Mr. Ferguson said.

After a full day of visiting monuments, the group met for a sit-down dinner and took the buses back to the airport.

“We all thought the day was over—but it was not over,” Mr. Ferguson said of the return flight, which arrived in Islip at midnight. “We got off the plane into the terminal, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“Bagpipes. There were 22 people on the bagpipes.”

On both sides of the bagpipers, Mr. Ferguson said, were hundreds of people waiting to greet the veterans.

Mr. Ferguson walked to the other side of his living room and picked up an American flag poster that a little girl had handed him when he returned to Islip.

The 88-year-old said that even after a full day, he wasn’t tired at all.

“I was shaking hands with everyone … I went over to a major and saluted him, and he said, ‘It is I who should be saluting you.’”

Mr. Mosconi, the Montauk veteran, had injured his knee a week before the Honor Flight—while skiing in New Paltz. That didn’t stop the 83-year-old from enjoying his first visit to the Washington memorials.

“I’ve always wanted to see the memorial,” Mr. Mosconi said a few days after the trip at his house near Ditch Plains Beach in Montauk. “The flight was absolutely amazing. The people who organize the flight work so hard.”

A booklet of all of the veterans who participated in this flight sat on Mr. Mosconi’s kitchen table next to dozens of handwritten letters from schoolchildren all over America, thanking him for his service.

“They’re so moving. Most of them were hand drawn,” he said with a smile while sifting through the letters. “I never expected this.”

“Dear Veteran, thank you for helping our country and keeping us safe,” Mr. Mosconi read out loud. He smiled from ear to ear as his wife, Grace, sat next to him looking at the letters as well. Mr. Mosconi said he plans to answer every single letter.

He had enlisted in the U.S. Army at the age of 18, right out of high school. He remembers walking down to the principal’s office and signing the papers, he said, pointing to his original draft card on the kitchen table. It broke his mother’s heart, but joining the Army was something he had planned to do for years.

“It was hard for her, but I came back safe,” he said.

“I enlisted because I figured I owed my country a debt of gratitude,” he said. “My father was born and raised in Italy, and he came here as an immigrant. They accepted him, he became a citizen, and they really gave him a life.”

His father had come to New York at the age of 17, right before World War II broke out, and went to work in a defense plant. “He never went back to Italy. He stayed here, married and raised his family,” Mr. Mosconi said. “In a way, I had to pay it forward.”

Mr. Mosconi signed up for the Army ready to fight. He went through basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey, and learned how to fire all the weapons. During basic training, Mr. Mosconi remembered crawling under barbed wire while drill sergeants shot bullets over the trainees’ heads. “The sergeant would say, ‘If you put your head up, you’re dead.’ They really tried to scare you,” he remembered. “People crack and get discharged.”

He also remembered being prepared for gas attacks. The sergeants would march the men into a large concrete building with no gas masks. They’d open canisters of tear gas and lock the doors. “They’d leave you in there until you choke,” he said. “People would run out, they’d be sick, they’d be puking, they’d be lying on the ground.”

Like Mr. Ferguson, however, Mr. Mosconi did not see combat during the war. He spent most of his time in Japan, working in communications—contacting units across the world, passing along information regarding invasions, and interrogating prisoners.

“We interrogated prisoners, took information, printed it up and stored it,” he explained. “We did most of that in Japan. I traveled all over Japan.

“I would show the Japanese kids how to use the phones and radios,” he said, adding that he learned a little bit of Japanese. “People were very friendly,” he added.

Sometimes he would dress in a kimono to get out of the uniforms he had to wear every day. “I had a lot of great experiences in Japan. They welcomed us,” he said. “The Japanese people would have outings and invite me.”

Fighting stopped in 1953, but the United States kept some men overseas. “They told us to be ready to fight,” Mr. Mosconi remembered. “By the time I got to Korea, most of the fighting was over,” he said.

He said Korea was “cold” and “desolate” for the short time he was there.

After coming back from Korea, Mr. Mosconi attended college at the State University of New York at New Paltz through the G.I. Bill and went on to be a high school history teacher for more than 30 years.

Mr. and Ms. Mosconi have three children and five grandchildren. The youngest grandchild, Christiaan, 18, hopes to attend West Point, the military academy along the Hudson River.

The night before the Honor Flight trip, Mr. Mosconi said, he was so excited he couldn’t sleep. A limousine picked him up at 1:30 a.m., and he was one of the first to arrive at the airport.

“The most traumatic was Arlington Cemetery. That was very, very moving,” he said. “We toured all of the grave sites … people were very emotional.”

He said when the group returned to MacArthur Airport at midnight, there were about 300 people welcoming them home. “That was very touching that they did that for us,” he said. “It was amazing, it was overwhelming. I just about cried. It was breathtaking.”

He walked over to the living room to pick up his old uniform and pointed to a Sharpshooter badge, and a Specialist E-4 badge.

“It still fits, too,” Mr. Mosconi said.

“I had to pay it back and I’m not sorry at all,” he said. “Serving in the Army gave me a life.”

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