When I returned home from Europe at the end of World War II, it was to warm greetings, hugs and handshakes from all my family and friends. It was a wonderful reception. No one specifically said, “Thanks for your service,” but I didn’t really expect anyone to say exactly that; I knew that was how they felt.
It is only in the last decade or so that a few people have said to me, “Thanks for your service.” The first were thoughtful young family members who said it, but occasionally even strangers — usually women honestly — volunteered it. But always it caused me to say to myself: “Now wasn’t that thoughtful, wasn’t that great.” I was usually so caught off guard that I was
speechless. Rarely I would recover and say, “You’re welcome; thank you.” (What else?). But occasionally when a service person thanked me, I would recover quickly enough to raise my arm in a salute as sharp as I could manage it. That always felt good — a feeling of kinship with the young person in uniform.
But before being on the Honor Flight I had not received very many heartwarming “Thank you for your service” greetings. Nor had I ever been applauded by hundreds, as all of us old World War II veterans, men and women on this flight, were as we paraded down the Phoenix terminal to our plane.
The morning that our group began its Honor Flight half a dozen active Air Force personnel escorted us through the terminal. A dozen of us veterans who could, walked; fourteen more were pushed in their wheelchairs. Also in our group were our personal guardians (my son accompanied me), and the medics and the staff people who made it all happen. They beamed and smiled and showed they were proud to be accompanying us.
Everyone in the terminal — old and young, passengers, airport staff and security people — stood and clapped as we passed by. The applause continued until we were well past each group. I hadn’t expected such a warm greeting from total strangers. A lump came into in my throat as we walked by.
It was the first of what would be for me many emotional reactions to the grand sights and places of Washington, D. C — Arlington Cemetery, the Vietnam Memorial, Ft. McHenry…
The special treatment resumed on the plane when we arrived in Baltimore. As the plane taxied to the terminal it passed between two fire trucks with water cannons spraying a huge arc over the plane for the Honor Arch Salute. That was a first for me and unexpected, but that still did not prepare me when we got the same reception inside the Baltimore terminal as we received in Phoenix. Once again to hear the acclaim from hundreds of people — all strangers — was overwhelming.
The declared mission of the Honor Flight was to visit the World War II Monument — to give the WWII veterans the chance to see their monument. And we did that. The monument is as big as was the war. It is impressive with big fountains, pillars, marble arches at each entrance, one each for the Atlantic and Pacific theatres. And the memorial wall with its 4,048 gold stars representing 404,800 dead is startling in its simplicity.
Then on to the touching Vietnam Memorial Wall, the gripping Korean figures, the somber Lincoln Memorial…then a solemn drive through Arlington Cemetery to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for the changing of the guard.
We and the other visitors stood in respectful silence during the ceremony. As it ended I drifted to the side to see where the commander entered the guards' quarters (underneath the monument). That meant I was among the first to exit and stood outside to await Chris. Many of those leaving (inspired I know by the ceremony) came to me saying, “Thank you for your service.” Men and women, old and young, friendly, sincere. After a dozen or so I was so overwhelmed that I simply had to back away and leave as discreetly as I could manage.
I realized’ then and now, that these people — and the crowds in the airports — did not know me. They were not thanking me as an individual but as a veteran. It was a “thank you” to all veterans. Nevertheless they were looking at me when they said it. Tough to take.
The long day was nearly over. We slowly passed the Iwo Jima monument on our way to Ft. Myer for dinner. After dinner a slow drive past the three tall spires of the Air Force Memorial — spires that mimic smoky trails of the air burst maneuver of the Thunderbirds.
Still more? Yes a beautiful tour of Washington, DC at night on the way back to our hotel.
Next day at Ft. McHenry we felt some of the awe of Francis Scott Key straining to see, after a night’s bombardment, “Is it our flag or theirs?” Then lunch on the go and back on the plane to fly home. Somewhere over Kansas we had Mail Call to top off our Sentimental Journey — not expecting that another rousing welcome awaited us at the Phoenix airport before disbanding! I was a little bushed, but thrilled.