The atmosphere was electric last Saturday at the Indiana National Guard’s 38th Infantry Division Headquarters as more than a thousand people gathered to welcome home 70 World War II veterans from Indiana who had spent the day in Washington, D.C., visiting the WW II Memorial on the second Indy Honor Flight.
The travel group, which consisted of 70 Hoosier veterans, 70 guardians (a volunteer guardian for each veteran), and 10 support personnel, departed early Saturday morning from the 38th Division headquarters with a police escort to the Indianapolis International Airport, where the group boarded a U.S. Airways charter plane for the short transport to the nation’s capital.
Among the veterans were five from Hendricks County: Francis Graves, James (Jamie) Gilbert Sr., Herbert Ritenour Jr., Kenneth Sheets, and James Vogel.
None of the veterans were prepared for the heroes welcome they were about to receive. As they came out of the jet bridge and entered the terminal at Reagan National Airport, they were greeted by more than 100 people who were waiting for them at the gate. A local band played patriotic music as the crowd of onlookers cheered, clapped, waved flags, and shook hands as the veterans passed by.
Variations of the hero welcome would be replayed many times throughout the day.
The first stop was the National WW II Memorial. The veterans walked or were pushed in their wheelchairs around the plaza, stopping to read the inscriptions engraved throughout the massive oval granite structure. They went to the pavilion representing their theater of service in the war (Atlantic or Pacific) and paused at the inscribed names of places where their duty was rendered; whether on land, at sea, or in the air — places like Normandy, Tunisia, Burma, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and many others.
They stopped at the Freedom Wall and gazed in silence at the 4,000 gold stars which represented the 400,000 servicemen that died in the war. They remembered the buddies that didn’t come back. They also talked to each other and discovered that some of them had served near each other or perhaps had done the same job. For a few moments they returned to their days of youth, lived out in the horror of a three-year war.