A dream come true

Wednesday, September 8, 2021
(Sentinel photos by Beverly Van Buskirk) World War II veteran Bill Reuter of Le Mars and Dream Flights pilot Max Conbeau are ready for takeoff in a 1943 Boeing Stearman PT 17 biplane. Following the flight, Conbeau signed a Dream Flights cap for Reuter, after which Reuter signed his name to the plane, adding it to other WWII veterans who have had a Dream Flight.

LE MARS — A Le Mars World War II veteran took a flight of a lifetime on the morning of Sept. 1 in honor of his service to this country.

Ninety-six year old William “Bill” Reuter, who makes his home at Accura Healthcare of Le Mars, was the recipient of a flight in a WWII vintage open cockpit airplane thanks to Dream Flights.

Dream Flights is dedicated to honoring military veterans and seniors with the adventure of a lifetime: a flight in a Boeing Stearman biplane.

About 50 family members and friends were on hand to see Reuter off.

“I was surprised they were all there,” Reuter said.

The crowd lined the way to the runway, all waving American flags and cheering.

“I was just kind of shocked,” he said of the welcome.

Pilot Max Conbeau told those gathered that this specific Boeing Stearman PT 17 was built in 1943.

“It used to be an aviator plane and Navy pilots, when they started learning to fly, started with this type of plane. It was a primary trainer. PT17 stands for Primary Trainer,” he said.

“Our plan for today is we’re going to take off, enjoy the area,” Conbeau said.

He asked Reuter if there was anywhere he wanted to go, and Reuter just shrugged.

Soon Dream Flight volunteers were helping Reuter into the cockpit, get strapped in and outfitted with headgear.

Then he gave a thumbs up, indicating he was ready to go.

The 15-minute flight was extended a bit as a crop dusting plane was on the runway for takeoff.

All too soon, the yellow plane touched down on the runway and taxied back to the terminal.

When he was finally off the plane and back in his wheelchair, Reuter took his turn at signing his name alongside other WWII veterans who had a ride in the plane.

Once he got his feet back on the ground, Reuter said he had to stand still for a minute.

“It was great to be in the air,” he said.

He added the open cockpit didn’t bother him as he flew above his farm south of town and around Le Mars.

“I just enjoyed it,” he said.

Conbeau said Bill seemed to enjoy the flight, too.

“I couldn’t see him too well in the mirror but he seemed really happy, a big smile on his face. We took off and went south toward his farm, his grandson told me where the farm was, circled it, flew around, came back, flew the town. The crop duster was getting ready to take off, so we got a little extra flight time before landing,” Conbeau said.

“This plane is very authentic. It’s an amazing plane to be able to take WWII veterans for a flight in a biplane,” Conbeau added.

Dream Flights founder, Darryl Fisher, was also at Wednesday’s event.

He said the Dream Flights foundation was started by accident.

“It’s one of those things that just sort of happened and morphed into something more,” Fisher said.

In 2011, his father had a biplane he had restored in Mississippi, and asked Fisher to fly it with him back to Oregon.

“I thought about the 15 gas stops and why don’t we stop in and give a veteran or two at each facility a flight. So our first flight was March 29, 2011, in Oxford, Mississippi,” Fisher said.

“We gave 25 flights on the way back. I’d call my wife and tell her about it,” he said.

Her response was, why would you stop doing this.

And so Dream Flights was born.

“Now we have six airplanes, and almost 5,000 Dream Flights 10 years later,” Fisher said.

“You know, Bill and his counterparts gave us our freedom. And it really seems trivial in some ways to thank them with a flight, but I don’t know what else to do for them at this stage in their life that is unique and different and uplifting. So this is what we do,” he said.

The foundation is funded through sponsorships, and is staffed by volunteers.

“Max and I donate our time. We have hundreds of volunteers, we’re all volunteers,” Fisher said.

Fisher singled out one woman at the event, as well as Accura Healthcare, as one of the foundation’s significant donors.

“Thank you for partnering with us. Without you and others we couldn’t do this,” Fisher said.

Blake Nettleton, administrator at Accura Healthcare of Le Mars, explained how Reuter’s Dream Flight came about.

“Dream Flight is a great program that goes through our national association that we are affiliated with, The American Healthcare Association. They pushed out to each nursing home in the nation what Dream Flight is about.

“The initiative behind it, it’s very cool, as you saw, they get to celebrate and acknowledge someone who served in World War II and fought for our freedom. It brings that person back to their younger days,” Nettleton said.

“Our company is very involved in the American Healthcare Association, and so we were one of the first ones to get in touch with Dream Flights. We wanted to make it happen and we did. Bill will remember this very vividly,” Nettleton said.

“That was very special. We are one of the first Accura facilities in Iowa to do this, so we wanted to make it a big deal. We wanted as much family there as possible, some family drove from Minnesota,” Nettleton continued. “We felt like we needed to honor him in some way, with him being our only World War II resident at this time, and being physically able to go. I cannot thank Dream Flights enough for the assistance they provided getting him in and out of the plane. A very smooth process for someone his age.”

Four of Reuter’s five children, Randy, Linda, Sherry and Mary, were able to be at the airport. The youngest, Barry, lives out of state.

Mary Ellensohn said her father entered the Navy in June 1943, between his junior and senior year of high school.

As to the flight, “I think he was pretty happy to do it. We were wondering how it was going to go. I was happy when he got in the plane. They looked like they know what they’re doing. But it’s hard at that age,” Ellenshohn said.

Reuter took basic training in Cour d’Alene, Idaho. From there he went to Fort Wanaans, California, where he was shipped out on a transport ship to Hawaii, and then on an aircraft carrier to the Marshall Islands. He arrived in the Marshall Islands February 1944, on the USS Manilla Bay.

He served as an electrician.

His ship was in a battle called the Leyte Gulf Battle. In the battle he said the ship where his friend Stan Neubrand served on, bombed and sunk.

Reuter recalls the Japanese pilots would come around the ship each day at the same time.

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