WASHINGTON – They came, like others before them, in wheelchairs, with guardians behind them leading the way.
But 70 years ago, they were the leaders, fighting for freedom.
Not surprisingly, then, the 51 World War II veterans who traveled to Washington on Saturday as part of the latest Honor Flight Buffalo got a hero’s welcome wherever they went.
“It’s very amazing,” said Roscoe Brown, who proudly showed off the Congressional Gold Medal his outfit – the Montford Point Marines, the first African-American Marine unit – was awarded years later. “I never thought I would see so many people greeting us,” said Brown, 88, of Buffalo.
Milburn C. White, who enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17 because “it was the thing to do,” agreed.
“I thought the reception was wonderful,” said White, 89, of the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation. “I couldn’t get over it.”
And what a reception it was, starting with a huge crowd that gathered to applaud when the veterans arrived at Baltimore Washington International Airport.
Then came the motorcycle escort into the nation’s capital and a procession to the World War II Memorial led by a bagpipe player.
There and everywhere they went, the veterans were met by the crowds of active-duty soldiers and Honor Flight supporters and tourists and joggers who stopped to applaud and shake the veterans’ hands.
And to top it all off, former Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan. – who regularly appears at the World War II Memorial to greet the visiting veterans – was there to pose for photos with anyone who wanted, and waited.
“He talks just like a regular person,” said William L. Ward, a 92-year-old Army veteran from Newstead who traded war stories with Dole, who was severely wounded during the war and built a political career that culminated in the GOP nomination for president in 1996. “He seemed happy to talk to me.”
The veterans, meanwhile, were happy to be accompanied by two special guests: Fred Jackson and Manny Lawson of the Buffalo Bills.
“I’m here for the late, great Ralph C. Wilson Jr.,” said Jackson, who noted that the late Bills founder, who died last year, was a World War II veteran. “The chance to come here was something I jumped at as soon as it was offered. It’s great to be here and hang out with some of the true heroes.”
Lawson, too, seemed to be in awe of the diminutive old men he towered over throughout the day.
“It is an honor to be here,” he said. “I’m very thankful to be considered to participate in this.”
The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation sponsored one of the two buses full of veterans from metro Buffalo, while the Buffalo Sabres Foundation and the HITS Foundation sponsored another.
Together, the donations allowed Honor Flight Buffalo to put together its largest group of veterans ever to come to Washington, said Lisa A. Wylie, president and co-founder of the organization, which has brought close to 500 veterans to Washington since it started sponsoring two or three trips a year in 2010.
The trips have become increasingly urgent, given that World War II veterans are dying at the rate of 850 a day.
They’re also an increasing physical challenge for the veterans, who were admonished to keep drinking water to ward off dehydration in Saturday’s 90-degree heat.
“Everybody’s healthy and doing well,” Wylie said as the Honor Flight buses returned and drove off to a celebratory dinner near the Baltimore airport late in the afternoon. “But a lot of them are taking naps to replenish themselves before dinner.”
Despite the heat, the veterans seemed to be in no need of replenishment during their tour of Washington, which took them from the World War II Memorial to the other war memorials on the National Mall to Iwo Jima Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
On the contrary, some took every opportunity they could to stand up from their wheelchairs to get a better view.
“I didn’t dream it would be that breathtaking,” Bill Skinner, an 89-year-old Navy veteran from Elma, said of the World War II Memorial. “It’s fantastic.”
“I haven’t really taken it all in,” said Bernard P. Mullane, an 86-year-old Army veteran from Lewiston, of the memorial, a Stonehenge-like oval with a pillar for every state and a fountain in the middle. “It’s pretty overwhelming.”
Mullane seemed overwhelmed by fact that so many American military personnel – more than 405,000 – lost their lives in the conflict.
“You think about what it took,” he said, listing the names of many of the battles Americans had to win to defeat Nazi Germany and the Japanese empire.
Others, though, recounted later battles.
“The Vietnam Memorial is the one that means the most to me, mostly because those boys went in to help a country in trouble, and because so many didn’t make it back – and for those that did make it back, the country didn’t recognize them with the honor they deserved,” said Gloria Lavin of Hamburg, who served three years in the Marine Corps, doing payroll, starting at the end of World War II.
But to many of the veterans, of course, the World War II Memorial meant the most because of their fallen comrades, including those who returned home but passed away before the memorial’s opening in 2004.
Clad in his Army uniform and reflecting on the seven decades that have past since the end of the war, Earle Heusinger, 94, of West Seneca said: “They should have built this 70 years ago.”