When Sgt. Mitchel Chockla arrived to the airport’s Gate 10, a crowd greeted him with cheers and rounds of applause.
The 96-year-old World War II veteran saluted and smiled, as more than 100 people gave him the big welcome, some raising cellphones in the air to record the special moment.
, an organization that recognizes military veterans, surprised Chockla on Tuesday at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, arranging a celebration days before his 97th birthday. The group arranged the flight for him to Pennsylvania for a family reunion.
Chockla, who served almost three years in World War II, shook hands with a little girl before gazing upon American flag balloons floating high above him.
Everyone was excited to help do something for this hero, said Ryan Paton, co-founder of Honor Flight South Florida. “This might be his last flight and the best one he’ll ever take.”
To make it happen, the group worked with Spirit Airlines, the Transportation Security Administration and the Broward Sheriff’s Office. Chockla also was honored for Purple Heart Day, a national observation for soldiers who were wounded or killed while serving in the U.S. armed forces.
Chokla appreciated the recognition, but said he wished his parents, of Ukrainian descent, still were alive to see it. “My mother and father should have got more recognition and a medal for having six boys in service,” he said. “I’m sure it was tough for them.”
Chockla received his medal after his right elbow was shattered because of an artillery explosion near Germany in 1944. He also has received two bronze stars, the French Legion of Honor medal and presidential citations for his courage and achievement as a rifleman in the Army.
To add to his many accolades, the street Chockla lived on for nearly 70 years has been named after him for his military service and career as a 24-year letter carrier in South Miami.
Tuesday’s celebration extended to 30,000 feet in the air. Spirit purchased red, white and blue cupcakes for all the passengers on Chockla’s flight and planned to sing happy birthday to the veteran.
Barbara Woodward, Chockla’s daughter, said, “We are absolutely thrilled and thank everyone involved for making my dad’s birthday and trip a memorable one.”
Scott Little, of Venice, Fla., one of the passengers who boarded the flight with Chockla, called the recognition “beautiful.”
“My father would have been 94 if he was still alive and he was in the service during World War II,” he said. “That entire generation made unbelievable sacrifices for all of us.”