JOE’S FINAL JOURNEY

MARQUETTE – Joe Kodanko’s family and friends are grieving his loss, but they are certain of something: Because of Upper Peninsula Honor Flight, he died a happy man.

World War II veteran Kodanko was one of 74 veterans who took part in Mission VIII of U.P. Honor Flight, traveling to Washington, D.C., April 22.

Joe Kodanko died four days later, on April 26. He was 92.

“Joe said to me if (Honor Flight) was the last thing he did in this life, he would go as a happy man,” said Valerie Schultz, assistant activity director at Christian Park Healthcare Center in Escanaba.

Schultz experienced Honor Flight with Kodanko, going along as his guardian on the flight. Each veteran flies on the mission free of charge and is assigned a guardian who pays a fee to take part in the trip.

“I knew Joe because his wife had been (at Christian Park) for a few years. Joe came to see her every day, without fail,” she said. “He was such a loyal, sweet man. I was happy to be able to go along with him.”

The busy Honor Flight day, which takes these WWII and Korean war veterans to the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and other landmarks in the nation’s capital, was a fabulous one for Kodanko, Schultz said.

“Joe loved it all, but the Navy Memorial especially,” she said. “He had a wonderful time (on the flight). We at Christian Park were so happy he was able to go. Joe was someone everybody liked. He was one of the kindest persons I ever met.”

When the flight returned to Delta County Airport, Joe Kodanko was the first veteran off the plane and was overwhelmed by the roaring, flag-waving reception the contingent received from a huge crowd who had waited for hours in the cold to welcome the travelers home.

As he sat in his wheelchair on the tarmac, Kodanko waved to the crowd and had tears glistening on his face.

“I think half of Christian Park was there waiting for us,” Schultz said. “They were waiting there for us with signs. It was just awesome. Joe was thrilled.”

Kodanko’s stepson Duane Englund said the trip was a fantastic thing for Joe.

“Joe was a very kind person and was so kind to my mom,” Englund said. “He was very much proud of his time in the service. When you got to talking to him about that, he was non-stop, especially talking about his time on the ship during World War II.”

A lifelong McFarland resident, Kodanko served in the U.S. Navy from 1944-46, earning the World War II Victory Ribbon, Asiatic-Pacific Area Ribbon and European African Middle East Area Ribbon. During the Honor Flight trip, Kodanko told The Mining Journal he served in both theaters of operation as an armed guard gunner, with one tour in the Atlantic and three or four in the Pacific.

Englund said Kodanko was active in the community, serving on the fire department board and the township board in McFarland and was a member of the Gwinn VFW Post 5670.

“Joe would try to do things for everyone,” he said. “He always did his best.”

Kodanko being able to make the Honor Flight trip was great, Englund said.

“That was icing on the cake, for sure,” he said.

Gwinn resident Julie Shaw is mourning the loss of her friend, but is grateful he was able to make the trip.

“I met Joe while I was the director at the Forsyth Senior Center and he had my heart at our very first visit,” Shaw said. “Joe was one of those very rare individuals that found it easy to share his life story. He was very open about his service to our country, his pride in his work as a DNR officer, and the love for his wife whom he dedicated his life to. Joe was one of the last true gentleman and I feel so privileged to have been a part of his life.

“Joe was so grateful for every phone call and visit and when we delivered Christmas gifts to him one year, you would have thought we gave him the world. He touched the hearts of everyone who came in his path, and I know our Christmas dinner delivery ‘elves’ will have a void in their holiday this year without a visit to his home.

“I am so grateful that he was able to take the Honor Flight,” Shaw said. “Joe Kodanko was a man who truly made a difference on earth, and I will carry him and his courageous attitude on life in my heart forever.”

Barb VanRooy, one of the organizers of U.P. Honor Flight, said Joe’s story is an example of what the flight means to these veterans.

“Even though we only knew Joe for a short time his determination and excitement touched everyone,” VanRooy said. “Joe is a reminder that time is running out and we need to thank our veterans now, not later.”

For more information on U.P. Honor Flight, visit upperpeninsulahonorflight.org or call VanRooy at (902) 280-1471.

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 240. Her email address is rprusi@miningjournal.net.