|The sun sets on the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery.|
Last week -- two days after Veterans Day -- I had the privilege of accompanying my great uncle (my mother’s uncle) on his “Honor Flight” (honorflight.org; he lives in Northern Ohio so we went through the Cleveland branch, honorflightcleveland.com), which flies veterans -- with first preference to World War II vets -- on an all-expenses paid day trip to Washington D.C. to view war memorials.
Twenty-five WWII vets and their “guardians” converged upon the Cleveland, Ohio, airport at just past four in the morning. Southwest Airlines flies the veterans for free, and the airline and all of its employees we encountered deserve major kudos for giving us great, great service. The TSA and Honor Flight team on the ground in Cleveland and D.C. were also superb, and along the way, strangers, some of them wiping tears from their eyes, the entire length of the airport terminals applauded our vets. We were welcomed to the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport by uniformed servicemen and servicewomen from, if I’m not mistaken, nearby Fort Myer.
My uncle works out five mornings a week -- he shows up at the gym before it is even open -- and is as independent as anyone I know, so I was there primarily to share in the experience with him; my job as his “guardian” was nonexistent. Actually, I got wrapped up in taking pictures and had a difficult time keeping up with him. Each veteran was required to utilize a wheelchair (provided for the day by the VA) at the airports, and were encouraged to use them at other locations. Uncle Herb, of course, eschewed the wheelchair in favor of walking whenever possible.
Uncle Herb (who will read this on his Kindle!) doesn’t really talk about the war. From the bits and pieces of information I’ve gathered, I know that he was drafted at the age of 20 and spent 13 months training in Colorado before he was deployed overseas in the 89th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, and that he participated in the Battle of the Bulge. “But just the end of it,” he is quick to add when it comes up -- as if to detract from the abominations he must have witnessed. I know, too, that he was there on April 4, 1945, when the troops of the 89th, along with those of the 4th Armored Division, were the first Americans to liberate a concentration camp: Ohrdruf, in Weimar, Germany. He was a forward observer, member of the 914th Field Artillery Battalion, and achieved the rank of corporal, with honorable discharge papers identifying him as “Scout 761” and “carbine sharpshooter.”
|Uncle Herb in 1943. The photo was saved by my grandmother, who I never met but whose husband -- my grandfather -- was Uncle Herb's older brother and whose sister later married Uncle Herb.|
I can’t even begin to fathom the horrors that Uncle Herb, and many of the 24 other WWII vets on his flight, saw first-hand, but it was my honor to be in their company. Many of the folks associated with Honor Flight are veterans as well, as were several of my fellow guardians, including one who was not much younger than the WWII vets (average age: 91) and who had been a POW in the Korean War, where two-thirds of the American POWs were killed as a result of war crimes.
It was sobering to visit the National World War II Memorial, which opened in 2004, with these men. Uncle Herb didn’t say much, but we walked around and took some photos, including some of him by the section inscribed with the Battle of the Bulge. Jim Renacci, a U.S. Congressman from Ohio, was by the Ohio pillar to take photos with the vets. Uncle Herb posed with the congressman as he was expected to do, but as soon as Renacci wandered off a few feet in the other direction, I snapped a solo shot of my uncle underneath his state’s pillar.
|Battle of the Bulge inscribed on the WWII Memorial.|
We also visited the Marine Corps War Memorial, United States Air Force Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial (after which I made a quick detour up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial), and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. A large group of schoolchildren on a field trip detoured our way while we were walking to the Vietnam Wall, and many of them politely said, “Thank you for your service,” a phrase I heard repeated many times throughout the day.
Our final stop was at Arlington National Cemetery, which I could have happily spent hours exploring had we had the time. We watched the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns, and then four veterans of our group placed a wreath at the tombs. I didn’t know until later that one of our veterans -- and one of those who participated in the wreath honors -- is the father of the bugler who sounded “Taps” at the ceremony. What a moment that was for them!
It was a long day -- we touched down in Cleveland after nine o’clock at night -- but a very special and fulfilling one that will, I think, remain forever with veterans and guardians alike.
|Uncle Herb taking a photo of the inscription on Pearl Harbor, the moment that started it all for the U.S.|
|Each of these 4,048 gold stars represents 100 U.S. service personnel who died or went missing and were never recovered in World War II.|
|The view from beneath one of the arches at the WWII Memorial.|
|The 25 WWII vets (two obscured from view) and two of the guardians on our trip.|
|Marine Corps War Memorial.|
|Statue by Felix de Weldon, based on a photo taken by Joseph Rosenthal.|
|Uncle Herb admiring the Marine Corps statue!|
|Air Force Memorial, in the shape of the missing man formation.|
|Shadows cast by the Air Force Memorial.|
|The Pentagon as seen from the Air Force Memorial. The top of the memorial would have been clipped had it been there when the plane crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.|
|Reflections in Valor, Courage, and Sacrifice.|
|Flowers at the foot of the statue accompanying the Air Force Memorial.|
|Our leader, Honor Flight board member and retired Marine Corps drill sergeant Al, with Uncle Herb.|
|The Vietnam Wall.|
|The Washington Monument (undergoing repairs and thus behind scaffolding) on the other side of the Reflecting Pool, directly across from the Lincoln Memorial. The monument is the focal point of D.C. and the surrounding area.|
|Inside the Lincoln Memorial.|
|Honest Abe's hand.|
|Korean War Memorial.|
|Uncle Herb was drawn to the magnificent laser etchings on the granite.|
|Uncle Herb noticed these front-lacing and rear-fastening boots (also below) on the Korean War statues and said that they were the most comfortable shoes ever.|
|Perfect rows at Arlington National Cemetery.|
|Gravesite of WWII hero -- and actor/horse breeder -- Audie Murphy, the third most visited grave at Arlington, after the Tomb of the Unknowns and JFK.|
|The wreaths that had been laid out earlier and replaced by new ones on the day we visited.|
|The sergeant escorts the relief guard going on duty at the tomb.|
|More perfection and precision…I was obsessed with the marks made by the horseshoe heel taps on the honor guards' shoes. The tomb has had a 24/7 military guard since July 2, 1937 -- retracing the same steps 24 hours a day all these many years.|
|The changing of the wreath about to take place, with a bugler in the background to sound "Taps."|
|The wreath our veterans brought from Ohio to place on the tomb.|
|The WWII veteran whose hand the honor guard sergeant is shaking is the father of the bugler. I didn't realize this at the time.|
|I took this post-ceremony photo of the bugler because I liked his smile, and had no idea his dad was one of our group! No wonder he was beaming.|
|American flag, autumn leaves, and the moon frame the amphitheater.|