'In tears': Belleville woman, 92, takes Honor Flight with her brothers

News-DemocratOctober 12, 2013 

Mary Kennedy Cahnovsky never thought much about her World War II service.

Now 92, the Belleville woman was an Army Air Corps nurse for three years during the war but she always considered most of what she did routine.

But the adulation she received after her Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., with two of her veteran brothers has her seeing things in a different light.

"I had a feeling now I did something important," she said. "Before it was just a job."

So was raising her eight children she had with her husband, the late Richard Cahnovsky, a Belleville dentist.

Mary said the honor flight on Sept. 24 was a really great time, not only because of the wonderful way people treated them, but also because it was a chance to get together with her family, her two living brothers and parts of their families.

Everyone gathered at her Belleville home and flew out of St. Louis. Family members went along as guardians.

One of her daughters, Diane Heffernan, organized everything, bringing in her uncles, Joe Kennedy, 90, from California, and Tom Kennedy, 89, from Michigan, both U.S. Navy veterans.

Another of the siblings, Robert Kennedy, died several years ago but he also served in the Navy

"There were so many photo albums out," Mary said. "It was such a good time."

The trip went like clockwork, she said. The people who do this have obviously had a lot of experience.

"It was one of the most interesting things I've ever gone through," she said. "They have got it down."

A nonagenarian herself, but pretty spry, she said one of the funny things to her was looking at the big crowd of wheelchairs holding all these elderly people.

"I was the only girl," she said. "All day long they had this fellow with a big camera running around. He kept saying, 'Go get the family.' That was us."

She grew up on a farm near Niles, Mich. Her mother was a nurse who ran the local hospital and Mary followed in her footsteps, training at Englewood Hospital in Chicago.

She finished school in 1942 with the first class to graduate after Pearl Harbor, she said.

"Army recruiters were always at the school trying to get nurses," she said.

She joined up and found herself with two of her friends and classmates headed to a newly created air base, Pyote Army Airfield in west Texas.

It was not an attractive site. Its nickname was Rattlesnake Bomber Base. The base was a training site for B-17 bomber crews and later B-29 crews.

"When we got there, there was only a head nurse," Mary said. "She said, 'I need one of you for days, one of you for nights and one for surgery.' My friends said 'that's you for surgery, Kennedy.'"

She was going to attend school to become a flight nurse but the night before she was set to go, she had her appendix removed and missed out.

She spent a total of 37 months in the military.

"It was a routine job, almost," she said. "The only wounded guys were coming through on their way to other hospitals nearer their homes."

After the war, she went to St. Louis University for her bachelor's degree in nursing. That's where she met her future husband.

When Richard was serving in the Korean War, Mary went to work at St. Mary's Hospital in East St. Louis. He served in a M.A.S.H. unit before transferring to a hospital in Pusan, Korea, she said.

A whole lot of memories came back for those few days while she was reminiscing with her brothers, visiting Washington and getting some long overdue recognition for her service.

"Everywhere we went we were honored," she said. "We were on a commercial flight, all of us up front. The other people on the plane stood up and clapped. I was in tears."

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 618-239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com

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