I spent nearly 17 hours with 101 World War II veterans in a whirlwind, one-day trip to Washington D.C. It was my first time at the Nation’s capital and it was the absolute best way to observe the memorials and the capital for the first time.
The men I had the pleasure of spending the day with are heroes.
They did their duty and they did it with pride and honor. Summing up my whole day would take far too long.
Besides, it wasn’t about me — So, if you will, let me share some of their stories with you (Click here to see more photos):
Henry Long warned the pilot before the plane even took off Thursday morning that he had been a paratrooper and was itching to jump again.
The pilot smiled and saluted the 90-year-old World War II veteran as he boarded the eighth Emerald Coast Honor Flight at Pensacola- Gulf Coast Regional Airport.
“Its fun,” said Long, of Fort Walton Beach. “If they’d let me, I do it again in a minute. Maybe someone will ask for me.”
Long, who served in the Army, was among 100 veterans who were flown for a one-day visit to Washington, D.C., to see the National World War II Memorial.
He said he hadn’t been to the Washington since before the war. He had been planning for the trip since he heard the Emerald Coast Honor Flight a year ago.
To say he was excited would be an understatement.
“I was up all night,” Long said, laughing. “I was worried about getting up on time.”
When the long day ended back in Pensacola, the veterans were welcomed by hundreds of people.
Long was pushed in his wheelchair through the crowd, his camera around his neck and a smile on his face.
“Today was beautiful,” he said. “Very emotional. I remember my buddies that aren’t here anymore and I get emotional.
He acknowledged that talk of the old days and past friends made him weep, but said the trip was worth it.
“This is one of the greatest days of my life,” he said. “I can’t even pick my favorite (part). I just loved every second of it.”
Santa Rosa Beach resident Jon Fox said he had been to the capital before, but had never seen the memorial.
“They needed it,” Fox said. “A lot of people were affected by this war. My friend was killed then. It’s nice to be able to remember him in this way.”
The former Marine said he saw things in the war he would never want to relive, but the memory of his fallen brothers can’t be forgotten.
“It was tough back then,” he said. “Many times all I could think was ‘Oh, my Lord.’ ”
Andy Anderson caught his breath as he stared at the Iwo Jima memorial Thursday afternoon.
“It’s really — I can’t hardly speak,” the 87-year-old veteran said. “It’s really something.”
The former Army “radio man” predicted the memorial would be the toughest to take in, and he was right.
As he sat beside the memorial, he reflected that had it not been for the men who lost their lives during the battle, he wouldn’t be around today.
“They think we’re heroes, (but) those guys (who died) are the heroes,” he said. “The guys who paid the cost of their lives deserve all the credit.”
The Valparaiso resident wasn’t the only veteran to wipe away tears as he remembered the men who died.
Niceville resident Norman Drake was equally moved as he took picture after picture of the Iwo Jima memorial.
“I spent my last few months of the war flying over Iwo Jima,” Drake said. “Those were bad times, bad place to be. We were just hoping to get out as soon as we could.”
The 88-year-old Air Force veteran said for two years he was a radar observer flying the P-61 Night Fliers. During the war, Drake sat on the same spot the famous Iwo Jima picture was taken at.
“We paid dearly to get to the top of that mountain,” he said.
As person after person shook his hand and called Drake a hero, he shook his head.
“We did what we had to do, that’s all there is to it,” Drake said.
To many of the veterans on Thursday’s Honor Flight, the trip to the World War II memorial was more than a monument. It was a reminder of life in the war and friends that went before them.
Morgan was enlisted in the Navy during the war working as a tank loader.
As members of the eighth Emerald Coast Honor Flight circled through the memorial, Morgan looked at the Washington Monument and sighed.
“This is amazing,” he said. “I’ve never been here before and I’ll probably never be back.”
Gaylord Hall’s biggest complaint about his arrival to Washington D.C.’s Reagan Airport is that his cane prevented him from shaking the dozens of hands reaching out to him.
“I knew there would be some kind of greeting, but I would have never expected that many people,” the 88-year-old said.
Hall and 100 other veterans were greeted by dozens paying tribute to World War II veterans as they arrived for the eighth Emerald Coast Honor Flight.
Every year since World War II, Hall said he has met with his fellow Army veterans at their past comrades cemetery to pay tribute to their sacrifice.
For the past three years, however, the former flight mechanic has been unable to meet. He hopes flying out to their memorial will make up for the lost visits.
“I’m going to look at some of the names of the guys on the wall,” Hall said. “The guys I knew early on and remember them – pay tribute to their lives.”
Hall served in China during the war and said times were tough, but it’s what was done in World War II
Serving was a way of life and, Hall added, it was an honor.
His guardian, Niceville resident Beth Tritschler, said Thursday’s Emerald Coast Honor Flight was her second. She said the experience was well worth taking the day off and paying to help make the day special for the veterans.
“This is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever had the privilege to participate in,” Tritschler said. “I can’t think of a better was to show our appreciation for their sacrifice.”
Tritschler said her son, Adam Tritschler, enlisted in the Navy and will be reporting in December.
Before he shipped out, they both thought taking a flight with the greatest generation would be an experience he could take with him.
“They are the most humble generation,” she said. “I want Adam to learn from them. I think when we honor them, to some degree. They are overwhelmed because they were just doing their jobs.
“It was their call and they did it.”
The 87-year-old World War II veteran said he has been planning for the Emerald Coast Honor Flight for over a month and sleep didn’t seem as important as getting everything ready before he left for his flight.
The Honor Flight was scheduled to leave Pensacola Airport at 7 a.m. The first of the veterans rolled through the doors around 4:30 a.m.
Rushing said he has been to Washington D.C. in the past, but this will be his first look at the World War II memorial.
“When I see it, I’m giving it a salute,” Rushing said as he showed how to salute. “It took awhile, but I’m glad they made the memorial.”
The Fort Walton Beach man said he was a tail gunner in the Air Force on the B-24 aircraft. His job was to sit in the rear of the plane and control the gun.
When his guardian exclaimed how important his job was, Rushing merely smiled.
“I thought it was, but who knows,” he said. “I know this is exciting, but nothing will beat the war.”
Thursday’s flight marks the eighth Honor Flight to take Gulf Coast veterans to the nation’s capital. At the end of the day, according to coordinator Tom Rice, around 850 veterans will have been taken to see their memorial.