James Sanders, a resident of Johns Creek, Ga., joined the U.S. Marines in World War II as a 17-year-old and served in the Pacific campaign. He participated in the recent Honor Air Flight in which World War II veterans are flown to Washington, D.C. for a daylong tour of the military monuments, but most especially the World War II Memorial.
ROSWELL, Ga. – It all started at 5 a.m. Oct. 10 at the Roswell Area Park community building. Sixty World War II veterans and 60 volunteer “guardians” from Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage and the Roswell Rotary climbed aboard three large buses, each individual wearing their red, white or blue colored polo shirt, matching the color of their bus.
Thus organized, they all headed to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. It was early, but the Roswell Fire Department was on hand to greet the veterans with their ladder trucks, ladders extended across the street and crossing, with the American flag suspended below. The buses drove under as the firemen cheered and applauded the departing veterans.
It was the beginning of a great day for these aging vets. Onto Ga. 400 and further onto I-85 went the convoy, with full police escort stopping cross street traffic, while others zoomed forward to clear the road ahead.
The convoy arrived at the International Terminal where their chartered US Airways Airbus awaited. All of the arrangements by the Roswell Rotary Club were in play and working smoothly. The careful planning of the Rotarians and the financing of thousands of dollars by Coldwell Banker were going to make this trip a success.
The disabled in wheelchairs were boarded first, filling the first-class cabin, their wheelchairs stored below in the baggage hold. The other veterans and their Coldwell Banker guardians filled the rest of the plane, along with the support staff and several emergency medical technicians.
The large plane rolled out onto the runway and in minutes was airborne heading for the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. The excitement and anticipation of what was to come was electric. Many of the veterans wore caps identifying their branch of service. They chatted with one another, asking, “What was your outfit?” or “Where were you?” and “What ship were you on?” Some were able to make a connection through association of some vaguely recalled action. New friendships were formed.
When the plane landed at Reagan National in Washington, D.C., the Washington fire trucks were ready. As the plane taxied, the water cannons on the fire trucks sprayed the entire plane, as a salute to the veterans.
Inside the terminal, the USO volunteers were waiting. Warm hands were extended and held tightly while smiling faces greeted the men with “Thank you for your service to our country.” The vets in turn thanked the well-wishers.
What surprised the vets the most was the large crowd of people that assembled in the gate area and mixed in with the USO. They all applauded, cheered and waved at the vets, showing their gratitude. The aging men felt what it was like to be a homecoming hero.
None of the men thought themselves a hero, but it gave them a warm sense of being respected for what they had sacrificed. Down the stairs, they were treated to more cheering, smiles and waves from people as the veterans made their way to the waiting buses.
The first stop on their Washington tour was the World War II Memorial – an important stop for this group of veterans who had served in that war. It is situated at the north end of the Reflecting Pool opposite the Lincoln Memorial. The veterans were well pleased with what they saw. The well-thought-out memorial, with its water fountain center flanked by twin pavilions, the Pacific and Atlantic, symbolized a war fought across two oceans. Inscriptions at the base of the pavilions marked the key battles of the war. Fifty-six tall pillars with state or territory names inscribed made a perfect place for the vets to pose for photographs.
Along the ceremonial entrance are 12 bas-relief sculptures showing scenes of America at war. One vet was seen pointing out to his guardian the action of a depth charge at the stern of a patrol ship – a little piece of history passed along to a younger generation.
The most poignant display was the Freedom Wall, where, in high relief, are gold stars; more than 4,000 of them, commemorating the more than 400,000 Americans who lost their lives in that war.
One vet pointed to the stars and said:
“One of those is for my best friend. We went to school together and were Boy Scouts together. He was a B-17 pilot and was shot down over Germany. What a waste. What a waste.”
The buses rolled on to the next memorial, stopping near the Lincoln Memorial, a central location nestled between the Korean Statues and the Vietnam Wall, where the names of that war’s dead are inscribed on the ascending wall, which then sinks back again into the earth.
The next stop was Arlington National Cemetery, where thousands of headstones mark the final resting place of those heroes that have served their country. It was time to witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
A hush fell over the crowd packed onto the steps. The vets in wheelchairs were wheeled into place. All silently waited for the changing of the guard. They watched the smooth, almost gliding, march of the guard as he moved back and forth in front of the tomb. On the hour, the officer of the guard appeared with the next watch. Rifles were inspected by the officer. All the veterans (who were able) stood at attention, with their hands over their hearts, while the bugler played “Taps.”
As the vets walked or wheeled back to their buses, the late afternoon sun cast long shadows on the silent hills and headstones of the fallen.
The final stop on this Washington tour was the Iwo Jima Memorial, honoring the nation’s Marine Corps. As the buses came to a stop, one vet popped out of his seat, shouting, “Marines! Muster at the memorial immediately.”
And he led the charge of Marines off the bus.
It was then time to return to Reagan National for the trip back home. The USO was in action again, saying “farewell” to the veterans and their guardians. A USO couple in ‘40s attire were dancing the jitterbug.
A few vets cut in to “cut a rug” with the lady. Then it was time to go.
The passengers went through the jetway, which was hung with patriotic bunting. Everyone settled into seats and looked out for their last view of the nation’s capital before climbing through the clouds.
When the plane broke above into the evening blue, the setting sun was a long orange streak hanging on the edge of the bunched cotton clouds, seeming to want to hang onto the day.
Perhaps the veterans felt the same way, not wanting to let go of their “Day of Days.”
In the back of the plane, a vet got up to move his stiffened legs. A young guardian standing near said, “It’s hard for me to get my mind around World War II.”
“What do you mean?” asked the vet.
“I mean the massiveness of it all,” he said. “The entire nation geared up to defeat the enemy.”
“Well, young man. It was that way. It was big in every respect.”
A quiet settled over the passengers. Each was reflective of their day and what they had seen. For some vets, this would be the last trip of any distance; 1,500 are dying every day. It won’t be long before there is no more of our “Greatest Generation.”
On a personal note, I wish to thank my personal guardian Nathan Brown and also Claudia Regan of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage for their work in making this trip such a joy to me. My thanks also to Gene Beckham and Alicia Hughes of Roswell Rotary, who did such an outstanding job of organizing this amazing and unforgettable trip.