Newtown Resident, American Hero: World War II Veteran Awarded Quilt Of Valor
Newtown resident Edward “Eddie” Paul Hornyak, 93, thought he was visiting the Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) Post 308 with his great-nephew, Paul Fehers, to check the building’s furnace on the afternoon of Sunday, October 13, but it was just a ploy to bring him there.
What he did not realize was nearly two dozen members of his family had gathered under the outdoor pavilion on that autumn day to surprise him with a special Quilt of Valor Ceremony in his honor.
The journey leading up to the big surprise began more than a year ago when Mr Hornyak’s great-great-niece, Erica Fehers, a junior at Masuk High School, started devoting a number of her Saturdays to making him the patriotic blanket through the Quilts of Valor Foundation.
The Quilts of Valor Foundation was established in 2003, by founder Catherine Roberts, to bring comfort and healing to those “touched by war.”
Ms Robert’s son, Nat, was deployed in Iraq at the time, and she was compelled to start the organization after having a vivid dream one night.
She dreamed that a young man in despair was sitting on the side of his bed surrounded by his war demons. Suddenly, the next thing she saw was him wrapped in a quilt and the whole scene changed to him being sheltered, safe, and given hope.
The Quilts of Valor Foundation strive to bring this symbolic message as well as bestow the physical comfort a blanket brings on a cool night.
In almost 16 years, as of October 15, 2019, it has been recorded that a total of 231,218 quilts have been awarded through the foundation.
Erica, who has eight years of sewing experience, first learned about the Quilts of Valor Foundation three years ago when her sewing teacher asked if she and her friend would be interested in making one.
The first quilt she helped make was presented to her friend’s grandfather, but it inspired her to create one for a family member dear to her, so she chose her great-great-uncle Eddie.
Mr Hornyak, known as “Hunky” to his military family, because of his Hungarian ancestry, served in the United States Army Air Corps (which later became the United States Air Force) during World War II.
He was a Ball Turret Gunner for the B-17 Bomber Aircraft — nicknamed the “Flying Fortress.”
His great-niece, Susan Feher, mother of Erica, told The Newtown Bee prior to the ceremony, “The Ball Turret Gunner was one of the most dangerous assignments in World War II. The person inside the Ball Turret was only protected by a glass bubble that jutted out from the bottom of the aircraft.
“The Ball Turret Gunner was the shortest man in the crew, due to the small space. He squeezed himself into a fetal position to protect the bomber from attack from below. The gunner sat between the guns with his feet in stirrups, positioned on either side of the 13-inch window in front of him.”
Before the ceremony began, Erica and Jane Dougherty, Connecticut co-coordinator for the Quilts of Valor Foundation, stood at a tall table in the VFW hall putting the finishing touches on the quilt Erica would be presenting to her great-great-uncle Eddie.
After starting the quilting project a year ago, Erica finished creating her quilt squares in August and made the pillowcase for the quilt to be carried in.
Through the Quilts of Valor Foundation, she sent the quilt sections to be pieced together by volunteer Mary Eddy, who returned the finished product to her last month.
On October 13, the only square left to be sewn on was the dedication patch that read, “Quilt of Valor To Honor & Comfort Those Touched By War for Edward Paul Hornyak on 10/13/19, pieced by Erica Feher and quilted by Mary Eddy.”
When the last thread was tied and the quilt completed, everyone shuffled outside to the VFW pavilion to wait in great anticipation for the guest of honor to arrive.
Mr Hornyak and his wife, Sue, emerged from the vehicle with their mouths agape at the sight of familiar faces gathered before them. Hugs were given and tears began to pool in the eyes of family knowing what was about to take place.
Mr and Mrs Hornyak were seated in the warmth of the sun next to the podium as Ms Dougherty introduced herself and told the history of the Quilts of Valor Foundation.
“Most of these quilts come through various hands, and we know they are going to a warrior, so we know they are infused with love, care, and prayer,” Ms Dougherty said. “This quilt is extremely special, because of who the quilt-maker is.”
Smiling, Erica turned to her great-great-uncle Eddie and modestly told him the process she did to create the gift.
Ms Dougherty added, “There’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of love. There’s a lot of time and talent that goes into fabric acquisition.”
Erica’s dad, Paul Fehers (Mr Hornyak’s great-nephew) approached the front of the pavilion to tell everyone what he had researched about ball turret gunners. He also provided handouts to educate his family about the unique military position.
“I’m so proud of him,” Mr Fehers said about his great-uncle. “He was in the occupation after the war was ending and he helped out a lot of Hungarian people who were taken prisoner… he saved a lot of their lives, because he knew how to communicate with [them].”
Reminiscing, Mr Hornyak said, “When I went into service, I spoke Hungarian very well. In fact, the people I met in Hungary, the Hungarians, thought I was born there, that’s how well I spoke the language then. It’s because I lived in Hunktown, the west side of Bridgeport, and it was all Hungarians. If you didn’t speak Hungarian, you might as well have moved out.”
Mr Hornyak helped Hungarians who were starving by bringing them into the military mess hall and allowing them to eat as much as they wanted.
People came to depend on him and meet him regularly. He would go on to keep in communication with them through letters, written in Hungarian by his father, when he came back to America after three years of service.
Mr Hornyak recalled his time in the military, saying he enlisted in the cadet program and went through the basic training three times until the government figured out where to send them.
Trained as a pilot, an aircraft navigator, a bombardier, and having received his “wings,” he went on to be part of 19 missions.
He fit the role of the ball turret gunner in the B-17 he was assigned to because he weighed just 127 pounds and had a stature of 5 foot 5 inches.
When speaking of his “buddies” from the war, the men he was incredibly close to, emotion overtook him. At those moments, he apologized for getting choked up — though most of those listening were also wiping tears from their eyes.
He recounted various memories of his time with Colonel Lucius Clay, as well as a specific mission where the plane he was on was shot up badly. During the latter, his two friends, including Captain Johnny Rachael, were wounded in the legs and had to be treated by the medic.
“Both of them were laid out right behind the cockpit of the plane…,” Mr Hornyak remembered. “Johnny called me up and said, ‘You better take over.’”
With everyone’s lives depending on him and responsibility weighing on his shoulders, he flew the plane to safety with the tail gunner as his co-pilot. He landed the aircraft with only one bump — which is a big feat for even the most experienced pilots, he added.
“To this day I would like to think it was because of my skill of flying, but I think I was just lucky,” Mr Hornyak said.
After his touching tale, Ms Dougherty and Erica displayed both sides of the Quilt of Valor design and awarded it to Mr Hornyak by placing it over his shoulders and wrapping him in it.
When the ceremony had ended, Mr Hornyak said to his family, with Erica by his side, that the quilt certainly “will go to good use.”