Clouds lingered overhead, as young and old walked around the water fountain at the National World War II Memorial.
Couples took photos of one another while mothers and fathers tried to keep track of children attempting to run free.
A leather-skinned gentleman, standing upright with his shoulders back, strolled arm-in-arm with another man who walked with a slight limp. The two, both with slight smiles on their age-worn faces, reminisced about the war they survived together while touring their memorial.
More than 70 years ago, World War II ended taking with it the lives of more than 400,000 members of the U.S. armed forces. While countries signed treaties and rebuilt cities, those who survived returned home, carrying both visible and invisible wounds of the war.
Nearly 59 years passed before the memorial was dedicated to the 16 million who served in the war and the millions who supported from home.
Retired Air Force Capt. Earl Morse founded the Honor Flight Network around the time the memorial was dedicated. Thanks to Morse’s efforts, there are currently 127 hubs in 41 states, and more than 100,000 veterans are able to tour the memorial annually.
On April 30, at the heart of the World War II Memorial, Lt. Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr., the military deputy for the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition, welcomed a group of 29 veterans from Honor Flight Georgia.
“Our military is the best in the world and a lot of that is based off the foundation (our veterans) set,” Bunch said. “It’s just an honor to see them, and give a little bit back to them in the form of respect and recognition for their contributions to our (freedom). Doing it here at the memorial just makes this a truly special event.”
Paul Bowker, a 90-year-old Army veteran from Honor Flight Syracuse, was wounded during his second night on the ground in Europe, spent a month recovering and went back to war. He walked down the ramp studying each of the bronze murals while sharing the experience with his oldest granddaughter.
“The memorial is not just for us (veterans) but it’s for our families,” Bowker said. “They can see that there were so many people involved and it wasn’t just a few kids from a city block.”
At 100 years old, Army veteran Paul Merriman said he had three close encounters with the Germans.
“We slept in a snow bank one night,” Merriman said. “We were surrounded by the Germans so we hid the jeep in the trees. That night more than 3 feet of snow fell to the ground.”
The next day, he said, they found lifesaver flyers and boot prints in the ground from the Germans who were looking for him and his two friends. He still carries one of the flyers with him to remind him of how close he came to being captured.
This marked the first visit to the memorial for nearly all of the veterans who made the trip with the Honor Flight Network, making the event even more special. Donald Jones, a 93-year-old Navy veteran, was one of those first-time visitors to the memorial.
In 1944, Jones landed on Omaha Beach in German-occupied France at 6 a.m. on the first day of the invasion and left that evening. He recalled the 5,000 men he and his brothers-in-arms lost on the beach that day.
“I carried the soldiers to the beach for the invasion,” Jones said. “It wasn’t any fun, but we did what we had to do. We brought the bodies back from the beach to England so they could return home because they were heroes.”
Some of the veterans participating in the honor flight also caught up with long-lost friends who shared the experience of the war.
Harold Bradley and Harry Miller both served in the same unit at the Battle of the Bulge. Bradley, who lives in Houston, tried three times to make the trip to visit the memorial he had heard so much about from Miller.
“I have seen so much on this trip,” Bradley said. “It has filled my bucket real quick. The memorial is amazing. I could tell people about this place but unless they see it themselves, it is not real to them. Once you walk into this place, it’s very real.”
Miller, who lives in the area, has visited the memorial often and wanted to share the experience with his friend. They walked around the memorial sharing stories with people who came up to them to thank them for their service.
“I come out here all the time,” Miller said. “I like it here, I feel like I’m part of it. I was here when they dedicated it. There were seats all the way up to the Washington Monument, thousands of people … me and my wife danced all around that day … we had a great time.”