At a table for eight, in a room for two hundred, gathered a group of Korean and World War II veterans. Each had the mark of aging somewhere on his frame. My WW II veteran, Fred Banks, sat with three other veterans, one from the Korean conflict. Fred had been transported to the gathering by a wonderful and caring neighbor who was very relieved at my arrival.
This gathering was for a central South Carolina World War II Veterans Honors Flight from Columbia, SC to Washington, DC. All the gathered veterans had never seen their WW II memorial on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
It can be truthfully said that each of the South Carolina Honors Flights would probably never have taken place if it were not for one man. This man is Bill Dukes, a Columbia restaurant business man who gave of his time and resources to give these veterans this opportunity. Much more could be said of Bill Dukes. But for now, thank you will have to do.
Most of these men were in their 80s and 90s. Some were more mobile than others, but each had been touched by the war and by the passing of years. At different times during the trip, it was clear that each veteran had moments during which he was focused inward. Their thoughts triggered by this trip will always be their own which is as it should be. Each had many opportunities to reflect on their time in the service and what they had done with their lives after their war.
Fred spoke infrequently. I would not presume to guess what he was thinking, but I would guess he is a man of few words naturally and the trip was the perfect catalyst for reaching deep for memories and introspection. The one thing we had in common was we both had served our nation in combat and were both members in good standing of the Band of Brothers. Our conversations were about family, jobs and remembrances not associated with the war, his or mine. I am also sure there were feelings of apprehension because he did not know exactly how all this was going to work out.
The welcome by passengers, kids, musicians and airline staff when they departed the aircraft at Reagan Airport changed all that.
Everyone was on their feet clapping hands with beaming faces. Children, who are by nature, shy around adult strangers, lined the path into the terminal and reached out to shake hands or just touch the vets. This outpouring of support was something that most of these vets were not prepared for and their emotional high hung like a cloud's silver lining over the entire assemblage and was palpable in its presence. If I heard it once, I heard it dozens of times from the Vets, "Thank you for coming."
We mounted buses and visited the WW II memorial, the Korean Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial and the memorial dedicated to women combat nurses. For my veteran, it seemed to me that he was moved more by the Vietnam Memorial and the statues of the combat nurses than all the others. I could be wrong about this, but he lingered at the wall and spent time soaking up the faces of the nurses depicted in the memorial.
Visiting the Mall and its remembrances of fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines was a special experience for all the vets, but for me, the highlight of the day was our return to Columbia. It was after eight at night and the vets with their Guardians were greeted by a mass of well wishers including family, Knights of Columbus in full uniform at present arms, the Irmo JROTC contingent , also at present arms with swords, bands and patriotic decorations. (I regret that the battery on my camera ran out of juice and I have no photos of the return ceremony.) It took a half an hour for us to pass through all these people. But the overriding feeling was one of welcome home. Not welcome home from DC, but welcome home from a war that they had lived seventy years ago. I stayed with Fred only long enough for him to rejoin his family who had come out in full to welcome him back. I said my farewells and left this family to show their love and affection for a man who had answered the call and served his nation well.
I wish Fred fair winds and a following sea. It is also appropriate to call forth the Marine Corp's motto, Semper Fidales, or Semper Fi, meaning always faithful. No word in my personal lexicon describes the WW II Veterans better than to tag them as always faithful to their nation.