Once on the ground, the Veterans only had seven hours until they had to return home. There was just one thing in Washington they wanted to see.
Thomas Carver, Russ Fisher, Bob Martin, and Curtis Wheeler had been waiting for a year to see their memorial. The Ohio World War II Veterans were handpicked from the Columbus-area Chillicothe VA Community Living Center, a long-term care facility, to visit America's tribute to their service: the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
"[Carver] didn't let a week go by for a year without asking, 'When are we going to Washington?,'" said Annette Roth, a VA recreational therapist.
Though World War II ended 65 years ago, the memorial wasn't constructed until 2004. It was far too late for many Veterans of the era who are dying at a rate of 900 a day. The Washington trip the Ohio Veterans waited for was sponsored by Honor Flight, an organization seeking to escort all Veterans, primarily World War II Veterans, to D.C. to see the memorials commemorating their sacrifice in the wars in which they fought.
The journey for the Veterans is free, paid for entirely through fundraising efforts and corporate donations. "We are in a race against time," said Bobbi Richards, co-director of Honor Flight Columbus. "The time to support this is right now because we aren't going to have World War II Vets around for very much longer to take the trip. We want to get as many there as we possibly can."
One chilly morning last month, Carver could finally stop asking when he was going to Washington. The Ohio Veterans were among a plane full of Veterans and their caretakers, or "guardians," for the big day, filling the rows of the specially chartered Southwest Airlines flight to D.C. The wheelchairs were stowed, the passengers excited; some had never been on a plane before. It was perhaps the most ambitious day trip any of them had undertaken in years.
The World War II Memorial sprawls across nearly seven and a half acres, flanked by the Washington Monument to the east and the Lincoln Memorial to the west. Its plaza is spacious, encircled by granite 17-foot pillars, one for each state and U.S. territory. A field of gold stars highlights the Freedom Wall, honoring more than 400,000 lives lost of the 16 million who served in U.S. forces. On one wall, General Dwight D. Eisenhower is quoted on the eve of D-Day: "You are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you."
|Thomas Carver, Curtis Wheeler, Robert Martin and Russell Fisher, Veterans from the Chillicothe VA Medical Center, visit the Freedom Wall at the World War II Memorial. (Photo by Chillicothe VAMC staff.)|
The Veterans could now lay their own eyes upon the memorial built in their honor. Roth asked Martin what he thought. "He stopped and he thought real long and his eyes filled up with tears," she said, "And he said, 'I walked on holy ground.'"
Relief images around the memorial offered the Veterans a chance to reminisce about their time in the war. "Tom wanted to read every little thing on the memorial," said VA nurse Linda Slaughter. "We went from one reading and ran to the next. He saw everything."
Fisher stopped in front of an image of a B-24 bomber airplane. "Russ talked about his experiences of being a radio man on the plane," said Roth. "At each picture, the Vets said, 'I remember.'"
"I thought it was the greatest thing," agreed Fisher, 93.
The Veterans also visited Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Memorial before boarding the buses back to the airport. One more surprise awaited them in Columbus.
When Carver, Fisher, Martin, Wheeler, and the rest of the Veterans entered the terminal, they were greeted by hundreds of people cheering for them. The strains of "Amazing Grace" started as bagpipers began to play. Children waved flags and an Honor Guard stood at the ready, all arranged by Honor Flight. "Many, many World War II Vets have never been thanked for their service," said Richards. "This day is all about helping them understand that America honors them, respects them, is grateful to them, and that we will not forget what they did for our country."
"I got a better welcome back today than when I came back from the war," said Carver, 90.
"There were people everywhere," said Fisher. "One of the greatest things I saw was when we landed and they said, 'Someone wants to see you,' and here was a group of children, very small. They stuck their hands out and said, 'I want to shake your hand.'"
"There was this crowd welcoming them home, saying 'Thank you,' 'Welcome back,'" said Roth. "There was this little 3-year-old boy with an Army hat and he saluted. I had tears in my eyes."
"There's not another word in the dictionary for me to express my gratitude to everyone involved in such an honor that was bestowed upon me," said Carver.
For more information about Honor Flight, visit http://www.honorflight.org/.
By Stephanie Strauss, VA Staff Writer
|Hundreds of people welcome World War II Veterans back home after their return from Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chillicothe VAMC staff.)|