WASHINGTON, D.C. --– The sky above the nation’s capital opened up and drenched the 171 Honor Flight participants – including 93 veterans of World War II and the Korean War -- who toured some of the nation’s most treasured memorials Tuesday.
“This isn’t going to bother them one bit, don’t worry about that,” said George Kerestes, who has been greeting and thanking World War II veterans at the entrance of the World War II Memorial for the last seven years.
“These guys have been through far worse conditions than 75 degrees and rainy.”
Kerestes, who said he has shaken the hands of more than 20,000 World War II veterans during his tenure as a volunteer at the memorial, approached the contingent of old soldiers from Iowa with hands extended and a broad smile.
“Thank you for your service, welcome to your memorial,” was his hearty greeting to each of the veterans filing into the World War II Memorial.
He said “I always make it a point” to make sure the nation remembers and appreciates their sacrifices.
“Of course, Iowa is a natural stopping point, because the Iowa state pillar is right next to the entrance,” Kerestes said.
Indeed, the “Iowa pillar” attracted all the veterans, for quick snapshots with their comrades.
The sprawling monument came alive with stories of the past, as it always does when the old warriors vist, Kerestes said.
Memories of Tuesday's sporadic – and often heavy, blustery – downpours, won’t compare to the emotional experience each of the visitors shared, he said.
“Everyone was offering them their thanks for what they did,” Kerestes said. “This is such a perfect place; I don’t think a week from now, anyone will think about the weather.”
Words couldn’t describe the scene for some vets. One Honor Flight attendee with a group from another state was visibly moved to tears at the entrance of the World War II Memorial.
It conjures up images of a place of worship, with famous inspirational quotes from the period’s leading military and political leaders carved carefully into marble walls, a sprawling reflective pool that catches the image of the Washington Monument in the background, and tributes to each state.
Clarence Freese, a World War II veteran from Wellsburg, almost missed it.
His son, John, who made the trip with him, talked him into going.
“It was his idea,” the elder Freese said.
It took a long time to sell Dad on the idea, John said.
“He wasn’t that interested, but I said, ‘Well, I’d like to see that very much, but I don’t want to without you,’” John said. “So, after a little bit more conversation, I was able to convince him to come and see a memorial that was built and dedicated to what he had done. It’s pretty amazing.”
His father gave due credit.
“I’m glad I came,” said Clarence Freese, who was onboard the aircraft carrier Essex in 1944 when it got hit by a kamikaze plane, killing several of his crewmates.
“There’s a lot of emotion here,” Freese said.
“We’ve seen it in pictures before, but, believe me, pictures don’t do it justice,” his son added.
Mel Trimble of Waverly, made Tuesday’s trip, just barely as a veteran of the World War II, he said.
“I was only in World War II two days,” he said. “I was sworn in on the 13th and the war was over on the 15th.”
Trimble, 86, said he spent all of 1946 in Korea, as his unit replaced soldiers who had served on Okinawa before being shifted to the Korean peninsula after the war.
Weather and other factors seemed to plot against the visitors from the start. Not long after their Boeing 737 touched down at Baltimore/Washington International Airport they piled into three buses that would be bound for Washington.
A wheelchair lift malfunctioned on one of the buses, causing a delay of about 40 minutes.
The tourists were left to wait for technicians to solve the problem.
“I think I’m going to enjoy it; I’m standing in line a lot, so I’m used to it,” Trimble said.
But there was much more, particularly for the 39 Korean War veterans who were on their first Honor Flight.
The veterans ventured to the Korean War Memorial, which presents a portrayal of 19 soldiers on a patrol. At night, when the soldiers are bathed in light, their reflections against a marble wall backdrop create the impression of 38 soldiers, representing the 38th Parallel,the border between North and South Korea that U.S. troops station to this day.
“It’s a great tribute for everyone who gave their lives not only for Korea but the rest of us,” said Patricia Sammons, 85, of La Porte City, who served as a clerk-typist during the Korean conflict.
Don Eckerman of Washburn, who was in the Navy between 1952 and 1956, said the Korean War Memorial churned up a lot of emotions.
“Words can’t describe it -- just like the World War II Memorial,” he said. “There’s no way to adequately describe what it it. It’s unbelievable. I’m really touched and impressed.”
The next stop was the Lincoln Memorial, across the Mall from the other two monuments.
Waverly resident Gaylord Hinderaker and Tripoli resident William Bravener, both 80 and Korean War veterans, said they both were overwhelmed by what they saw at each stop.
“I might be a little prejudiced to the Korean, because that’s the (war) I was in,” Hinderaker said.
A sudden downpour washed out a visit to the Vietnam Memorial, and gusty winds brought down several limbs that crashed to the ground just behind a couple of tourists.
The buses were loaded and headed over to Arlington National Cemetery to witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is done every half-hour during the summer.
Onlookers were asked to stand in silence as three soldiers executed their maneuvers crisply.
A final stop at the Iwo Jima Memorial, a tribute dedicated in 1957 to the U.S. Marines, brought out waves of cameras for more group shots around the famed statute of the soldiers planting the U.S. flag.
A long day was capped with a rousing welcome a little after 10 p.m. at Waterloo Regional Airport, where the odyssey had begun more than 15 hours earlier.
The veterans all received hand-crafted thank-you cards from children in the Waterloo Community Schools. A band played “Sentimental Journey” as the returning veterans were greeted by a long queue of flag-waving well-wishers that snaked around the airport’s terminal.
Vehicles from area police and fire stations parked along the main airport thoroughfare, their lights ablaze in a color-splashed salute.
“I think it’s great; so many people that wanted to go on this trip now got their chance,” said Marvin Monroe, 83, a Korean War veteran from Dysart. “It’s wonderful. I’ve just been looking forward to it for so long.”