Ronald P. May
— 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.
Their sober reflections were mercifully interrupted by surprising and delightful interactions with strangers. Adults visiting the memorial, school students on field trips, and even young children came up and asked if they could shake the veterans’ hands. And as they did, they expressed their gratitude for the veterans’ service.
Before they left their memorial, the veterans from Indiana were gathered together for a large group photograph. Seventy veterans stretched across the front of the reflecting pool cradled by the ‘arms’ of the two great pavilions — Atlantic and Pacific — that both appeared to smile down upon them under a glorious sunny day with blue skies.
As the veterans were getting in position for the photograph, crowds of people congregated to witness the group shot. They instinctively recognized the historic moment of the occasion and understood it was their opportunity to thank the veterans who helped protect their country and preserve freedom in much of the world. A spontaneous eruption of cheers and clapping burst from the crowd as the heroes from WW II were rightfully honored.
Following the magic at the WW II Memorial, the veterans and their guardians crossed the Potomac River to Arlington National Cemetery. There they witnessed the somber and moving changing of the guard ceremony in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
After passing by the enormous Marine Corps Memorial, the veterans were taken back into D.C. and dropped off by the Lincoln Memorial. Here they had the option of visiting the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, and/or the Lincoln Memorial.
The group finally returned to the 38th Division Headquarters shortly after 9 p.m. where they were to meet back up with their family members for the drive back to their homes.
But one final surprise remained: the homecoming. Family units joined hundreds of patriotic friends and fellow citizens who had gathered to welcome the veterans’ home from their trip.
The veterans slowly made their way past the throng of cheering people who were waving flags and holding up posters. Smiles and tears of joy flowed freely as they reached the spot where they were reunited with their families.
The mission to honor the group closed triumphantly with echoes of the ticker tape parades that once celebrated the end of the war and the safe arrival home of the service members.
Many more veterans remain who have not yet seen their memorial and not yet been so honored and thanked. Indy Honor Flight now sets its sight on flight number three, which is scheduled for a fall departure. To sign-up a veteran, register as a guardian or other volunteer, or learn more, visit the website at www.indyhonorflight.org or find them on Facebook.