An old soldier takes a trip to the past

Published 9:59 pm Saturday, May 23, 2009

I am 83 years old, and I’ve taken lots of trips. But this one would take me back nearly 65 years. Like a child, my emotions were already asking: ‘’Are we there yet?’’

I was on my way to Washington, D.C., to see the national memorial dedicated to those who served in World War II. Already, it was bringing back those days and emotions I thought had been erased by the passage of time.

At last, on May 5, 1945, the guns were silent. It was time to come home. We’d done our job, and now it was time to get back to our lives. I’d been away for three years. You don’t just come back. Everything’s different. Especially you. Strange as it may sound, many of us were nervous in this new world. It was full of civilians. They even spoke differently. Four-letter words were not a part of their vocabulary. At first, just talking was difficult. But over time, a word here, a little adjusting now and then, and even we vets became civilians.

Email newsletter signup

Fast-forward to the trip to the National World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. For me, it started with a phone call. I was told I had been selected to participate in a program called ‘’Honor Flight,’’ scheduled for a date in the next month. I was told to be at the airport in Huntsville by 5 a.m. That’s about a two hours’ drive from my home in Hoover.

My son and his wife not only offered to drive me there, but to save getting up so early, they also reserved rooms in Huntsville for the night before.

The next morning, we all assembled in the boarding area of the airport. One hundred and twenty-five vets of every stripe and service. Most wearing a cap with their former military branch and unit proudly displayed. Some in wheelchairs. Some with canes. A few with walkers. Most standing as tall as they could. They once stood at attention for hours; now, many sought the comfort of the airport seats. We were given name tags that included our seat number and bus in Washington. The tags were hung around our necks so we’d be less likely to get lost.

Honor Flight is meticulous in its attention to detail and fully respects the frailty of their charges. Not one among the group was younger than 80.

We landed in D.C., boarded buses and started on our way to the first destination — the one we really came to see — the WWII Memorial.

The buses parked near the memorial. Only a short walk, and before us was the monument honoring those who served in WWII.

It’s spectacular. Its total design is a composite of grandeur and finicky detail, with towering shafts and bronze plaques. Each shaft represents a state. Some plaques come to life with a memory of a day long ago when I was young. The fountain sending streams of water against blue sky cast a spray of moisture on my face, nudging a dim memory of rain falling in my foxhole.

After much remembering, looking and picture-taking, we boarded our buses and headed for our next stop, Arlington National Cemetery. Perhaps you’ve seen film of the rows of markers. But one has to be there to experience the disquieting thought that under each marker is a hero of history, someone who was loved, admired and missed. I remembered buddies, individuals who had given their full share, but this sight of marker upon marker was too gigantic to absorb, too enormous to cram into my consciousness.

To make it real, I remembered Ned laughing at a joke or Eddy, bloodied from the mine, and Pat, who never cried. Then the squeak of bus brakes brought me back to now. The sight, though blurry and panoramic, held for me a new insight. Each marker was not something but someone.

Soon, we were in the buses again, on our way to the Korean Monument. This is not a single monument; it’s 19 separate units, each representing a soldier slogging through a rice paddy on another patrol on another day in hell. This was another place and another time, but soldiers are a brotherhood. That war or my war or any war is hell, and though the details may change, the emotions emerge at the same temperature. Cold is cold, wet is wet and fear is fear, no matter where the memory is made.

After lunch, we were off to the Iwo Jima Monument. That famous sculpture captures the spirit and determination of our beloved Marines.

One of the war’s fiercest battles, with more than 6,000 Marines lost, was at Iwo Jima. Now, reading about this event, I feel a little twinge of guilt reflecting how lucky I was not to have been there.

Like all things in life, our visit to D.C. was coming to a close. Time to thank and say goodbye to our hosts and board the buses for our final trip to the airport. In a short while, we’d be back in Huntsville for the reception of a lifetime.

In Huntsville, we deplaned to the waiting area for what seemed like an unusually long time. The reason for the long wait became clear when we reached the down escalator. Only one vet at a time could go down. At the bottom was a sight I will never forget.

First could be heard the din of voices calling out, thanks for your service . . . bless you for all you did . . . you’re a hero . . . we love you . . . thanks.

And there was a feast for the eyes, too. People as far as we could see — kids, grandmas, teenagers, parents, even some soldiers home on leave. As we walked, it seemed to go on forever. Smiles, banners, handshakes and pats on the back.

Near the end, I could no longer hold it back. Small tears, blurring my view at first, then a flood. It was the end of a wonderful day and a wonderful gift. The Honor Flight men and women had given me not only a great day, but a tour in their magic time machine and let me relive and revive nearly forgotten moments of my long-ago youth.

George Stantis is a retired television executive living in Hoover, Ala. He served in Europe in George Patton’s Third Army, 89th Division, known as the Rolling W. He can be reached at Tax deductible donations to Honor Flight may be sent to: Honor Flight Tennessee Valley, c/o The Huntsville Times, P.O. Box 1487 WS, Huntsville, AL 35807, or to Honor Flight Birmingham, American Legion Honor Flight, 150 Inverness Corners No. 185, Birmingham, AL 35242.