TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - Jackie Luksic of Dayton, Ohio, took a detour to see the World War II Memorial as she traveled through Washington on May 11.
She traveled to see the monument to the generation that includes her father and uncles who fought in the war.
She arrived as the latest group of veterans from the Rotary Club of Tuscaloosa’s seventh Honor Flight toured the monument. As the first of many rain showers began, the veterans spread out across the monument’s plaza ringed with pillars for each of the states and territories and a wall for the dead.
World War II veteran Dewitt Cross was waiting under the entrance marking the Pacific Theatre. Luksic greeted him and asked for a picture, taking a moment to snap his portrait in front of the monument. She wanted a photo of a veteran from her spontaneous trip.
“I was so happy to meet one of them,” Luksic said.
Tears came with the thought of her family’s World War II veterans.
“I wish my dad could see it,” she said. “He is 89. He can’t make the trip.”
Since 2010, the Rotary Club of Tuscaloosa has taken more than 500 veterans to Washington to visit the monuments commemorating their service. Wednesday’s trip included about 165 people, a mix of veterans and the guardians who accompanied to assist them.
Many of the veterans were in wheelchairs or used walkers. Others made their way using canes. Some seemed so small in the large yellow T-shirts worn to help identify them in the large crowds of tourists and school children at the monuments.
The organizers prioritized World War II and Korean War veterans for the trip, noting the aging group is quickly fading. It’s important for the organizers that the veterans’ stories be preserved and shared, especially with younger generations. It’s important to the organizers the veterans get the opportunity to see their monuments in Washington, D.C.
“There are a lot of sacrifices that people don’t realize that military people made,” said Chuck Turner, a Vietnam War-era Army veteran and Rotary Club member.
In addition to combat, there is the time spent away from families, lost income, and jobs and other opportunities set aside for service, he said.
“We want them to remember this day as the day we told them how proud we are of them,” Turner said after the jet chartered for the trip landed at Baltimore Washington International Airport.
Under cloudy skies and frequent showers - the worst weather of any of the trips so far - the group also visited the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.
University of Alabama junior Jordan Forrest has been part of student efforts that helped raise $20,000 for the flights over the last three years. The Honor Flights cost about $80,000, Turner said.
Forrest, the UA Student Government vice president of financial affairs, got involved with Honor Flights as a high school student in Missouri. On her first trip with the veterans, she helped a veteran find a name on the Wall of Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which lists the U.S. military members killed in the Vietnam War.
“When you get to see them go to these memorials, it is incredibly moving,” she said.
Herbert Davis, 92, of Alberta City, was a paratrooper with the 460th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion in the last months of the Second World War, serving in France and Germany. It was his first trip to the World War II memorial, and he admired the circular monument as he sat in his wheelchair with his guardian at his side.
“It’s been a very, very exciting visit for me,” he said.
Davis appreciated the respect and honor for the veterans and the military embodied in the memorial.
“This visit has been very uplifting to my spirit,” he said.
Bill Wilkens, a 92-year-old World War II veteran, shared stories on the bus rides between the monuments. He was a turret gunner on a Boeing B-17 heavy bomber with the 394th Bomb Group in the 8th Airforce. He recalled learning aerial gunnery by shooting shotguns at skeet from the back of a moving truck in Arizona and he recalled a dangerous raid over Czechoslovakia in the last days of the war.
“We lost an engine before bombs away,” he said.” More flak on that trip than any of the ones I was on.”
In front of the Iwo Jima statue at the Marines Corps War Memorial, he reflected on the war’s dead.
“It means to me that there were an awful lot of people who lost their lives during the war,” he said. “A lot of the memorials are in appreciation.”
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Omar Smith, Wilkens guardian on the trip, stopped to find his wife’s brother on the black granite panels inscribed with the names of the dead.
Marine 1st Lt. Joseph Koppler died in July 1966 as he directed mortar fire on North Vietnamese positions, Smith said.
“He was dedicated to the guys he trained with,” Smith said.
Marine veteran Sonny Evans of Meridian, Mississippi, was impressed with the nearby Korean War Veterans Memorial, the statues of an infantry team in ponchos carrying radios and rifles.
“The only thing is I didn’t have the poncho when I was down there. Only thing missing was the snow,” Evans said.
Evans, a member of a Marine reserve unit out of Meridian, served in Korea from 1950-1951.
Mary Poole worked for the Navy at the Pentagon and in Norfolk, Virginia, as hostilities ceased during the Korean War. She explored the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial as boisterous school children on a field trip skated around her on the wet granite pavement.
Poole recalled watching service personnel in Norfolk as they returned from Korea after hostilities ended.
“Most of them were ready to muster out,” she said.
Some of the returning medics stood out for her, young men lost in a daze.
“They didn’t talk. I felt so sorry for them. They were like 18-19 year old boys,” Poole said.
The honor flight was a chance for her to return to the city where she had worked so many years ago.
“A lot of (the monuments) weren’t here when I was,” she said.
Sixteen hours later, the veterans returned to a warm spring evening and a band and a crowd of a few hundred to welcome them home at Tuscaloosa’s airport.
Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, https://www.tuscaloosanews.com
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