Jerry Williams of California usually drives to South Carolina to spend Father’s Day with his son, but the Vietnam War veteran yesterday took a detour to the District to honor a fallen comrade he had treated like a son during their tour of duty together.
“Seeing his name on the Vietnam Wall makes it real,” said the 56-year old former Army “buck sergeant,” choking back tears. “When I left Vietnam, I left him, and I never saw or heard from him again. A few years ago, a guy from the unit told me he ‘got it’ over there after I left. I couldn’t believe it.”
Mr. Williams was one of thousands who gathered at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and National World War II Memorial yesterday to pay tribute to fathers, uncles, cousins and sons, living and dead, who served in the military.
Flanked by more than 1,000 roses and cards placed earlier in the morning at the Vietnam Wall in honor of Father’s Day, he knelt down and rubbed the name Joel C. Loftus onto a piece of paper. He said he plans to frame the name and hang it in his home in Suisun, Calif.
He kissed the name several times, tears welling in his eyes, then stood and saluted his friend.
“Joel Loftus was the nicest kid in the crowd,” Mr. Williams said. “He was just a quiet, peaceful boy. He played the organ in church. … The rocket came down right on top of his head. It got him, nobody else. Just him. It could have hit other people who were bad guys, but it got the nicest boy in the unit.”
Although Mr. Williams said he was one year younger than Mr. Loftus when the two men met in November 1968, he had been in Vietnam longer and was quick to take the new arrival under his wings.
“We were both from Texas, and, of course, people from the same states stuck together,” Mr. Williams said. “He sought me out when he got there.”
In June 1969, six months after Mr. Williams had gone home, Mr. Loftus was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade while lounging outside camp headquarters.
“I remember he showed me his photo album,” Mr. Williams said, shaking his head. “He wore a white suit when he played the organ in his church in Houston. He told me he always went to church, and I went with him one last time before I left. He said God was his strength.”
Meanwhile, families and older military veterans visiting the World War II Memorial placed Father’s Day cards and notes in honor of deceased loved ones.
“I’ve got a few years left in me,” said Daniel Simon, a Navy veteran who served aboard a transport ship during the Allied invasion of the Philippines. “This is a great Father’s Day gift for me,” the 80-year old Brooklyn, N.Y., native added, with a smile.
Mr. Simon was accompanied by his wife, Marilyn, and his daughter, Lynne Trybuch, who said they had arranged for him to visit that memorial as a special holiday treat.
“We couldn’t make it to the dedication ceremony, so we decided on Father’s Day,” said Mrs. Trybuch, who lives in North Potomac. “It’s really amazing to see this huge crowd and all of these cards and flowers and wreaths dedicated to fathers. I guess we weren’t the only ones with the idea.”
One Father’s Day note, addressed to the late Army veteran William A. Donnelly Jr., was signed by his daughter, Betsy. The message read, “To my Dad, my hero. Your spirit of courage and patriotism lives on.”
Onlookers frequently stooped to read the cards, which were stuffed near the pillars marking individual U.S. states or taped onto the memorial’s surfaces.
Many said they had come in honor of a father they were not able to visit for the holiday.
“My wife and I wanted to take some photos for my 82-year old dad, who served in the Army during the war,” said Tom Vadakin, 59, of Hamburg, N.Y. “He lives in Colorado, and my mom isn’t likely to let him come out here himself. I think the photos will be a nice Father’s Day surprise.”
Many young children spent the morning cooling their feet in the memorial’s pool or splashing water at ducks swimming in a fountain on the Pacific side of the memorial.
“We visited Arlington yesterday and we’re visiting the memorial today,” said Tom Guiel, a Rockville native in his mid-40s.
Mr. Guiel was resting on a bench late in the morning with his wife, Lee, his children, Jessica and Misha, and some relatives from Florida. “It keeps Dad quiet,” said Jessica, 15, of the family visit. She added, with a whisper, “We also got him a Caribbean shirt and a pair of shorts. Don’t tell him.”