TREMONT — At age 94, World War II veteran Gene Neeley is the secret weapon for the Greater Peoria Honor Flight.

Neeley is assigned a frequent but tricky mission, one for which he has a unique knack. Many vets often decline invitations to join an Honor Flight, dismissing their military service as uneventful or unworthy. That’s when the organization contacts Neeley, who lives and breathes a simple mantra:

“If you served one day, you deserve to go.”

With gentle arm-twisting, Neeley eventually wins them over — each and every one. Without exception, each vet has been glad about going — maybe almost as glad as Neeley.

In his typically calm patter, he says, “It gives me great pleasure to get people on a flight.”

It also pleases Greater Peoria Honor flight, which appreciates Neeley’s special touch.

“Gene is instrumental in talking to veterans who might be reluctant,” says Phyllis Piraino, the group’s vice president, who helped form the local hub in 2013. “He can sweet-talk them, using his patriotic charm. He is a veteran, so he can relate. Gene has been one of hardest-working volunteers.”

He also is one of the most distinguished: Neeley is the last surviving charter member of the original Illinois Air National Guard base in Peoria. Even before then, he'd learned a lesson about honoring service.

Neeley grew up in Mackinaw, where at age 17 he took a job pumping gas, not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He didn’t have any big career plans, in part because he figured he’d get drafted. He was right: At age 18, the Army sent him overseas, as part of the 2nd Replacement Depot. He served in Belgium, Italy, Germany and France, hauling ammunition and other supplies for the infantry.

“As the front moved, we followed,” Neeley says.

Amid countless battles, one day sticks in Neeley’s memory regarding absurdities of war. His unit captured a group of Germans, including two with very young faces: They turned out to be just 9 and 11 years old. Their uniforms almost hung off of them, as they were gaunt and nearly starving. They not only had no food, but no ammunition for their sidearms.

The pair understood a bit of English. As Neeley’s unit discussed how to best guard them, the two said there would be no need to put them behind bars.

“We no run!” one promised. “We eat!”

As the war moved on, at one point there was was talk of transferring Neeley elsewhere. But his commanding officer stepped in, making sure to keep the hard-working Neeley among his 40-man unit.

Neeley served from 1943 through the end of 1945. After he returned to Mackinaw, one day his mother said a stranger looked lost out on the street in front of their home.

“You’d better go out there and help him out,” she told Neeley.

As he stepped outside, he was stunned: It was his old commanding officer, on a personal motor-car tour, thanking all 40 soldiers for their service.

“I thought that was quite an honor, that’d he come to Mackinaw,” Neeley says, his voice quietly carrying 70 years of awe.

In 1946, still unsure of his future, Neeley found opportunity at the Peoria airport. There, the Illinois Air National Guard was forming as the 169th Fighter Squadron. With 15 officers and 47 enlisted men, the squadron — which eventually would become today’s 182nd Airlift Wing — was given federal recognition the next year.

Meanwhile, in 1946 he married a Tremont gal, Mary Cooper. They would raise one daughter in Tremont as Neeley rose to master sergeant with the Air Guard, spending most of that time overseeing the motor pool. His unit officially was called up thrice, but never deployed. With full military benefits, he retired from the Air Force in 1962, though he stayed in the reserves until 1984. He later would work jobs here and there, but remained in Tremont. He still lives in the same house he shared with his wife, who died in 2012.

“We had 66 years of a very, very good marriage,” he says.

The next year, just shy of 90, he’d get new military duties.

In 2013, Neeley was invited to take a trip with the Greater Peoria Honor Flight. Formed that year, the local hub is one of more than 130 nationwide belonging to the not-for-profit Honor Flight Network, which provides veterans with free one-day trips to war memorials and other sites in Washington, D.C.

Veterans enjoy the camaraderie and retrospection of the trip, which culminates with a rousing and appreciative greeting once their planes land at hometown airports. Veterans rave about the experience. Earlier this year, one told this newspaper, “It was one of the greatest days of my life. I have never been treated better.”

The program depends on volunteers and donations. So, soon after the 2013 trip, Neeley became a familiar face at Honor Flight fundraisers.

The Peoria hub does four flights a year, with as many as 75 vets (plus a mandatory chaperone each) on every flight. Though chaperones pay $500 apiece, Honor Flight still must pay about $45,000 each flight to cover transportation, meals and other costs. Neeley enjoys pitching in wherever he can.

“I just think think that every veteran deserves to go on a flight,” Gene says.

But not every vet agrees. Some say they don’t deserve a trip. The reasons vary, but it’s usually one of two contentions: They say they didn’t see combat, or they say their fighting record isn’t distinguished. In those cases, an Honor Flight rep will make a call to Tremont and say, “Gene, go to talk to him.”

Neeley doesn’t like to discuss himself too much. But his superpower seems to be persistence.

“I just keep talking back and forth,” Gene says with a shrug. “I’ll say, ‘Give me one reason why you can’t go.’”

He’ll hear reason after reason. But his sincerity and enthusiasm always win the argument. The vet eventually will get onto the plane, and rightly so.

“They did their share,” Neeley says.

He recalls one really hard case, with a veteran whose business flew him to Washington twice a month. He’d seen the sights, so he planned to decline an Honor Flight invitation.

But Neeley told him, “It’s not the same as going with fellow veterans. Why don’t you do me a favor? Go, and see how you feel after you get home.”

Sighing, the vet reluctantly agreed. At the post-trip airport homecoming, the emotional vet shook Neeley’s hand, gushing, "I'd never experienced anything like that in my life."

How effective is Neeley with his persuasive pitches?

“I have not been turn down once,” he says matter-of-factly.

Meanwhile, he goes the extra mile to assist with particular accommodations. He recalls one veteran who was close to his two daughters, each of whom could afford her share as guardian. But the vet was about to call off his trip, as he didn’t have the heart to pick one over the other.

“I tell you what,” Gene told him. “How about you take one daughter, and we’ll get a veteran for the other?”

With one daughter chaperoning another vet, both offspring got to go on the same flight as their father. Neeley's wisdom and creativity are a blessing to the Greater Peoria Honor Flight,  which gives him a critical sense of purpose. He has no plans to step down from lending a hand at fundraisers or convincing fellow vets to get on an Honor Flight.

“My goal now is to keep going to get every veteran on a flight,” he says.

The Greater Peoria Honor Flight will host its next fundraiser Nov. 3, with the Honoring Our Heroes 2018 Breakfast at Exposition Gardens. For more information, visit greaterpeoriahonorflight.org.

PHIL LUCIANO can be reached at pluciano@pjstar.com, facebook.com/philluciano and (309)686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.