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Honored to the end: WWII veteran from San Diego dies on final leg of Honor Flight

Frank Manchel (Honor Flight San Diego)

In the final moments of his life, Frank Manchel knew that many people honored him for his World War II service.

Manchel collapsed Sunday, on the final leg of a trip sponsored by Honor Flight San Diego, a nonprofit that gives World War II veterans all-expense-paid visits to Washington, D.C. Two physicians aboard the chartered American Airlines flight tried to resuscitate him, but he died before the plane landed at San Diego International Airport. He was 95.

“It was almost instantaneous,” said Dave Smith, founder of Honor Flight San Diego. “He was laughing, chatting, having a good time — and then he collapsed.”

“We extend our deepest sympathies to the Manchel family,” said Honor Flight San Diego Chairman Julie Brightwell in a statement released Monday. “It was our privilege to honor this true American hero during his final hours.”

A Michigan native, Frank Louis Manchel was an Army technical sergeant during the war. Last Friday, he flew from San Diego with 82 other veterans and their “guardians,” family members and other volunteers who help the elderly soldiers, sailors and fliers during their visit.

Last weekend’s trip was Honor Flight San Diego’s 14th journey, and it followed the by-now standard schedule. On Saturday, the veterans visited the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Air Force Memorial, the Navy Yard’s museum and other sites with historic significance.

On Sunday, the group toured a military electronics museum before taking a bus back to the airport for the flight home.

Although the days were packed, Manchel was able to enjoy a mini-family reunion. He was accompanied by his son, Dr. Bruce Manchel. Manchels’s 93-year-old brother, Jerome, came to D.C. from his home in Michigan with his son, David. Another of Frank Manchel’s son, Howard, came up from Atlanta.

Shelley Zimmerman, the former San Diego police chief and the daughter of a World War II veteran, was on the trip as a “guardian,” a volunteer who helps smooth out any difficulties for the elderly visitors. Chatting with the Manchels on Saturday, she was struck by the senior veteran’s upbeat mood.

“He was 100 percent engaged, proud, humble — as these veterans are,” Zimmerman said. “You could just tell how proud they all were of him. It was just wonderful, a loving, loving family.”

On the return flight, Manchel signed a World War II book for another guardian. About 1:30 p.m., an hour before the flight’s scheduled arrival in San Diego, Manchel stood up and then fell to the floor. His son and another doctor rushed to assist him.

“They tried to do CPR for over 12 minutes,” Smith said.

Manchel, though, was unresponsive and never recovered. Chaplains prayed over the body, which was then draped in an American flag.

As the plane began its descent into San Diego, Zimmerman turned to Dr. Manchel.

“If you are up to this,” she said, “to honor your father, let’s sing ‘God Bless America.’”

The son agreed and soon the entire plane was filled with emotional, choked-up voices raised in patriotic song.

As the other veterans filed out of the plane, each saluted while passing their fallen comrade. Zimmerman oversaw Manchel’s removal through the rear of the plane, following protocol for a dead police officer or member of the armed services. The body was carried through a cordon of medical personnel, firefighters and law enforcement officers, saluting as Manchel went by.

“My father’s passing was the ending to the most amazing weekend, surrounded by his newest best friends,” said Dr. Manchel in a statement released Monday. “We thank all of you — Honor Flight San Diego, American Airlines, San Diego International Airport, friends, and supporters for your concern and for allowing the weekend to be so special for all of us to share together.

“Frank passed quickly and peacefully and the compassion and respect that that was shown to our family will always be treasured. May he rest in peace as he is now with his other beloved son Jimmy.”

A network of Honor Flights serves 141 hubs around the country. Smith was inspired to found Honor Flight San Diego in 2010, after he and his father, World War II veteran Arthur Smith, took part in another region’s version. As of today, the San Diego chapter has brought about 1,400 veterans to Washington, D.C.

At every step of the trip, the veterans are saluted and applauded. Honor Flight’s volunteers work to ensure a carefree trip, taking care of everything from hotel arrangement to baggage checks to sightseeing buses.

While Manchel was the first veteran to die while on an Honor Flight San Diego trip, six other deaths have occurred during Honor Flights originating in other cities.

“We know this is a potential situation,” said Smith, who this week is preparing funeral services for his recently deceased father. “We want to honor these veterans, but this is one of our worst fears that this might happen. We do everything we can to make sure these veterans are safe.”

Manchel is due one more, posthumous, flight. American Airlines have offered to convey the late veteran’s remains and any family members to Michigan, where the family plans services and burial.

But his final flight in life will always stand out for those who accompanied him.

“It’s called Honor Flight for a reason,” Zimmerman said, “to show the respect and the honor that we have for our veterans.” (


© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.