WASHINGTON- A Marine World War II veteran handed out Mardi Gras beads Wednesday while touring the National World War II Memorial for the first time.
“This is a one-shot deal. Most of us are in our 80s and 90s,” Bobby Nicks said as he handed out the colorful beads. He wanted people to know Mardi Gras originated in his home in southern Alabama.
Nicks traveled on the South Alabama Honor Flight,part of the Honor Flight Network,which gives veterans a chance to visit the nation’s capital and the memorial dedicated to them 60 years after their services overseas. The one-day trip brought 88 Alabama veterans to see the memorial,the Iwo Jima Memorial,Arlington National Cemetery and other sights in the capital.
Nicks served in the 4th Marine Division during the 15 gruesome days of the Battle of Iwo Jima and remembers watching the flag go up over Mount Suribachi.
Because the National World War II Memorial was not opened until April 2004,many of those for whom it was erected have never gotten to see it,for either financial or medical reasons.
“This might be the last chance I get,” Nicks said.
Jake Jackson and Jim Duncan Jr. attended grade school together. They were drafted at the same time,and both joined the Navy and served in three combat landings together. At the World War II memorial,they searched for Kilroy’s iconic tagging,said to be hidden somewhere on the memorial’s walls.
Daniel J. Gunther wore his World War II veteran cap – covered with the many emblems,patches and pins he earned during his service – as he walked down the memorial’s entry ramps.
“It means quite a bit. Even just to be alive to be here,” Gunther said.
As a Navy Frogman,Gunther was a combat swimmer and underwater demolitions specialist. He said the Japanese called the Frogmen the “Naked Warriors.” This unit laid the foundation for the division now known as the Navy SEALs.
“It’s quite an honor to be here. We certainly didn’t expect it,” Gunther said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimated in February that 850 American World War II veterans die every day. For this reason,Honor Flight emphasizes the urgency of its work,which gives priority to World War II veterans and terminally ill veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Earl Morse,a retired Air Force captain and physician assistant,started this federal nonprofit organization in 2005. He worked for the VA in a small clinic in Springfield,Ohio. As he became acquainted with the World War II veteran patients,Morse realized most of them would never have the means to visit the memorial.
Morse spoke to members of his Wright-Patterson Aero Club about organizing an all-expense-paid trip for these veterans. Eleven pilots agreed to help.
The Honor Flight program was created,and 137 veterans traveled to the nation’s capital that year. According to the Honor Flight Network website,the program flew 17,832 veterans to visit the war memorials dedicated to them in 2009. The HFN consists of more than 100 hubs in 39 states.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley,R,was the first governor to join a trip.
“I’ve been trying for one and a half a years. I’d love to do it again,but next time I need someone I can keep up with,” Riley joked,sitting with three veterans.
Riley joined as a “guardian” for the trip. These volunteers provide support and assistance throughout the trip,including pushing wheelchairs,but pay for their own expenses.
“He didn’t come down here as Governor Riley. That day he was Bob the guardian,” said Peter Riehm,operations director for HFSA,as he rushed back and forth across the memorial making sure every veteran was fed and cared for.
“It’s a crime,” Riehm said,”We took 60 years to build a monument for people who might never get to see it.”