The first stop off the bus in Washington was to see the one memorial that honored almost all the veterans on our trip, the World War II Memorial. It is the newest of them all, completed just 8 years ago. Ironically, in 2004, most who served in that war were already in their 80s. Yet, in a personal mission more than 60 years after the war, they marched in formation to lay 2 wreaths at the site: one for those who fought in the pacific, the other wreath to remember those who fought in the Atlantic. Robert "Pap" Headrick (91) served in the Pacific Theatre. He says, "I think we had a 125% casualty. I lost a lot of good friends." Doug Douglas fought in the Atlantic and just shakes his head when he says "Lots of memories. Lots of memories."
WWII was the deadliest conflict in history. 400 thousand Americans lost their lives, remembered now by the 4 thousand gold stars on the memorial's Freedom Wall. The Enola Gay was the plane that dropped the first of two Atomic bombs that ended the war. That B-29 aircraft was known as the "Superfortress" and is preserved now at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum, our second stop on the bus. The tour guide for the group describes it as "the most advanced aircraft the US built in the Second World War" A third of the airplanes on display at the museum are one of a kind. That was impressive, but no one was more impressed than our tour guide when he discovered who was in his tour group. "You worked on this airplane?" he said to one of the men in our group from Lubbock. "I am honored to have you here, " he said as he shook the hand of Gene Heath, a 90 year old mechanic who worked on the Enola Gay. Our tour guide soon discovered that 2 others in the group trained on the B-29 bomber: Doc Haney (91) was a co-pilot during WWII, Buster Coomer (78) was in the Air Force and served in Korea. Buster said, "It brings chills, it really does just to see the aircraft again." Doc Haney said "I think I'm the only B-29 pilot that I know of that's still alive." Gene added "I guess I'm the only mechanic I know of." Then Buster chimed in, "Well, I guess I'm the only gunner as far as I know!" It was a celebration of rock stars who had lived the stories written in this museum. "This is the highlight of my life. You can't beat this", Gene said with a huge smile.
Yet another highlight would soon bring tears.
The Marine Corps Memorial symbolizes a victory that was the turning point in World War II, the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. It was the march to this memorial and the wreath laid at the flag that brought the most empathy, since many in our group had fought at Iwo Jima, or lost friends who did. Bill Pasewark (87) remembered his service as a Marine on that island. "Iwo Jima was supposed to take 3 days", he said. "It was supposed to be an easy operation. it took 30. The hills were 500 feet high. We couldn't see them, but they could see us."
Harold Bertrand (87) said, "I was on Iwo Jima from day one. I was within a half mile of that (flag) when it went up." His voice quivered when he added, "I got up and saluted it and everybody else did to. Pete Wheeler (86) wasn't on Iwo Jima, but he was a Marine serving in the Pacific. He said with tears running down his face, "The whole marine corps owes respect for these boys." The memory of 26 thousand fellow Marines killed or wounded on that island was overwhelming for Wheeler. He tried to continue, but put down his head crying. Bill Pasewark, standing next to him, put his arm around his fellow marine and said, "Come on. You're doing well. Keep going."
Then, with a shaky but determined voice, Pete looked straight into our camera and said, "We just want everybody to know, we'd do it again in a minute."
This four part series continues through Friday.
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