WASHINGTON D.C. —
WASHINGTON – Here at the east end of the reflection pool on the National Mall, the stone columns stand tall and proud around the men they honor.
As World War II veterans of Elkhart County shuffled down the ramp, their eyes wandered up and down and back and forth. For some, this pristine and polished memorial even took them from now to then.
"I love this," said Merlin Truex of Elkhart as he rested for a moment on a bench. "I’ve been to the other monuments here (in Washington D.C.), but this is the best one of the lot … but I may be prejudiced. I’m amazed, I really am."
An Army quartermaster, Truex was based mostly in Hawaii, but often went on allied invasions in the Pacific. On this humid and overcast day in the nation’s capital he was with his brothers again at the World War II Memorial.
Truex was one of 35 World War II veterans and a handful of Korea and Vietnam war veterans who traveled to the D.C. area on a bus thanks largely to the fundraising efforts of Goshen City Councilman Harlan "Chic" Lantz.
The group of veterans arrived at their shrine just before noon. Trip coordinator Mearl Grabill of Goshen led them to the "Pacific" side of the memorial where they were greeted by an attendant.
"We have," Grabill proclaimed as he shook the man’s hand, "a 56-band of angels."
The man smiled, welcomed them all into the memorial and thanked many of them for their service as they passed.
For nearly two hours the men strolled around the memorial, reading the walls and sharing their stories. The group even gathered for photo holding American flags that were given to them as a memento of their trip. They even held flags for other Elkhart County World War II vets who wanted to make the trip but couldn’t. Those flags will be carried back to Indiana and given to those men.
As the veterans gathered, passersby stopped and snapped their own photos to document their own memories of a special moment with people they had never met before.
"This is just beautiful to watch," a lady visiting from Australia said as she pulled the group into focus on her digital camera. "I’m so glad I got to see it."
On the road again
The group’s whirlwind jaunt down memory lane began early Monday morning with continental breakfast at the Comfort Inn in Gaithersburg, Md.
By 7:15 a.m. everybody was full of English muffins and microwaved eggs. They loaded themselves onto the Cardinal bus piloted by George Conners of Elkhart as Grabill stood at his now customary spot in the front of the bus.
"Is everybody happy?" he said enthusiastically.
An excited grumble reverberated from the back of the bus as Conners pulled away from the hotel and toward the nation’s capital, more than 30 World War II veterans armed with ponchos and disposal cameras in tow.
Headed down Maryland 355, the group crept inside the beltway into Bethesda and past the famed Naval Hospital. Once in D.C. Conners took the group down Wisconsin Avenue and past the National Cathedral.
"Oh my gracious," said Elkhart’s L.D. Palmer as he peered out the window at the magnificent church. "Isn’t that beautiful."
From there it was on to Massachusetts Avenue, otherwise known as Embassy Row.
The veterans snapped photos through the bus windows as they passed a statue of Winston Churchill flashing the victory sign in front of the British Embassy.
It reminded Lantz of a joke.
"Some lady went up to Churchill and said ‘You’re drunk,’" Lantz said. "He said ‘Well, you’re ugly and tomorrow I’ll be sober."
A mock rim shot was audible from the back of the bus as the men around Lantz laughed.
Before long the veterans were gazing out at the Kennedy Center and Watergate complex as they closed in on their first stop of the day across the Potomac River.
‘We just did our jobs’
Just past the Roosevelt Memorial Bridge, the Marine Corps War Memorial came into view. The giant bronze statue depicts the raising of the American flag by Marines at Iwo Jima. Several of the veterans on board spent time at the Pacific island during the war.
The veterans walked up to the memorial as a light rain began to fall.
Stan Leedy of Goshen served in the Navy and was just off shore when the flag was raised atop Mount Suribachi in 1945.
"I get chocked up when I think about," Leedy said. "I was so close to all of it."
He gazed up the monument and blinked his eyes.
"A month ago," he said, "I wasn’t even thinking about this and here I am."
Beside Leedy on Monday stood Richard "Lee" Newton Jr. of Elkhart.
"We just did our jobs," Newton said as tears trickled down the side of his face. "I’m so proud. The younger generation doesn’t realize what this is all about. They have to be taught. They don’t know until they do it and I hope to God they never have to do it again."
Newton and Leedy reminisced about the scab of an island, remembering how deep the ash was on shore.
As Leedy pulled himself back on the bus, Lantz was the first person who greeted him.
"You’re famous, Stanly," Lantz said after seeing him interviewed by a WNDU television reporter.
Leedy chuckled and smiled wide.
"Those guys are famous," Leedy said, pointing to his right at the huge bronze statue. "Not me."
Conners drove past the Pentagon, pointing out where the Sept. 11, 2001, attack had occurred. He then pulled up next to the Air Force Memorial that was nearby. The guard waved the bus through for an unexpected stop.
Ken Haines of Goshen was one of the first off of the bus. As a member of the 15th Air Force, Haines flew 22 missions as a tailgunner on a B-24 bomber over the skies of Europe. They bombed oil fields, ball-bearing factories and manufacturing complexes in Berlin.
"We got rid of them," he said. "I imagine we gave a few people a headache or two."
Haines stared up at the memorial’s three bended spires jutting from the ground and spreading into the gray, overcast sky. He stood there for a second, his mouth opening slightly.
"It’s just overwhelming," Haines said as his voice cracked slightly. "I had no idea. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any pictures of this. Beautiful."
The true memorial
Monday was a special day for the Elkhart County veterans. They also toured the U.S. Capitol, a visit that was facilitated by local U.S. Reps Joe Donnelly and Mark Sauder. The group was also honored at the Library of Congress for participating in the Veterans History Project. Sen. Richard Lugar was there to meet the veterans.
The day concluded at Arlington National Cemetery where the veterans witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
But as special as Monday was for these veterans, Elkhart’s Thurman Pressler did his best to keep it in perspective. He was a Marine in the South Pacific during the war. As he walked from the World War II Memorial toward the bus he told how he was raised in a pacifist family.
He said he never felt like he was given much credit at home for doing what he did during the war.
While the physical memorial was nice, he said, the true memorial is in the eyes and smiles of those who come up to him.
"Memorials can be cold, but meaningful," Pressler said. "When I’m somewhere and somebody comes up to me and says ‘I appreciate what you’ve done,’ that means so much more to me than this memorial. That’s my true reward."