My friend Steve Savage of Allentown went to Washington, D.C., on Oct. 6 with a group from the Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project. Here is his report:
On a muggy and hazy morning, before dawn broke through the fog, 53 young and old men and women prepared for an adventure — their own version of D-Day, which some of these former soldiers had gone through once almost 70 years ago. All were headed to the nation’s capital to prove a point, yes, maybe, but mostly to pay homage to their fellow fallen comrades who had fought and died for their country, for their families, for their buddies, and for their future.
Led down the highway by a contingent of veterans on their flag-bearing motorcycles, they set out with high hopes and anticipation of what the day would hold for them. They all knew that their federal government had barricaded many of the memorials in Washington, D.C, but they were going.
For many of these veterans and civilians alike, this may be the last and maybe only time they would be able to look upon the memorials that were built for them, to honor them and the men and women they fought and died with. They were not going to allow government bureaucracy keep them from making this trip. It was owed to them. Now was the time to collect.
The bus pulled into the capital and drove into the scenic and hallowed grounds of Arlington Cemetery. Their destination was the Marine Corps Memorial, commonly known as the Iwo Jima statue. Here there was to be a special event, with a very special and honored woman.
As the veterans and their families stepped off the bus, each man and woman was handed a replica of the Stars and Stripes and asked to face west toward a large building just a short distance away. Every one of the 53 raised their arms and waved the flags as a very distinguished and local hero stepped out onto her balcony — Anna Mae Hays, who grew up in Allentown and became the first woman promoted to general in the armed forces. The sight of hometown friends saying “hello” made her day special, to say nothing of the emotion felt by the men and women standing in the shadow of the Iwo Jima statue, proudly waving their American flags to Gen. Hays.
After a short stop at the visitors center at Arlington Cemetery for a bag lunch, the Lehigh Valley group met up with a bus from the Lancaster area. The small caravan headed back through the streets of Washington toward the World War II Memorial. For most of these men, some over 95 years of age, this was their memorial. But they wanted to share it with all, veteran and civilian alike. This was for all those who respected and wanted to honor the fallen from World War II.
The Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project group walked up to the memorial and were met by barricades that simply read: “Because of the federal government shutdown, all national parks are closed.” They had all expected this, but they had come this far. Sixty some years ago, armies of the Axis powers had tried to stop them from moving forward. Needless to say, no small cardboard sign was going to stop them now. With a group of almost a hundred men and women behind them, the people who had organized the trip spoke to the park rangers on the other side of the barricades. One could almost see that the rangers understood the importance of allowing these veterans to enter this place of honor. With that, the small barricades were moved aside, and with many tourists and other veterans cheering and applauding behind them, the men and women from the Lehigh Valley and Lancaster, some with walkers and some with wheelchairs, entered into this inspiring memorial.
For many of these veterans, it would be the first and maybe the only time they would get to see their memorial. It did not have the names of their fallen comrades carved into the stone, but it did have the names of the many battles where they had fought and died so many years ago. You could tell it brought back many memories, some they shared with others, some they would probably never share.
After more than an hour of telling stories and getting lost in their thoughts, the veterans gathered together under the stone pillar marked with name of Pennsylvania. It was here they presented a red-, white- and blue-ribbon wreath to pay homage and respect to their fallen veterans. As if on cue, the World War II veterans and many of their friends broke into a chorus of “God Bless America.” The voices may not have all been in tune, but the emotion behind it was straight from deep in the heart of each and every man and woman there.
After one last photo of the entire group, the bus was loaded again for a short drive to the next stop at the Korea and Vietnam memorials. The men from the more recent wars needed to see their memorials too, but once again, there were barricades with the small cardboard signs. However, there was no stopping anyone at the gates. The crowds of thousands at the National Mall that day simply walked around the black metal barricades to pay their respects to the honored soldiers. Even with the federal shutdown, it seemed as if the rangers guarding the parks and memorials realized how much these statues and walls meant to so many people. No one stopped anyone. There were no angry crowds. No talk of politics. Just many men, women and children there to pay their respects to the honored, some fallen comrades, most of them men and women whose names they never knew.
The men and women from the Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project once more boarded their bus to head back home. To many of them, it may have brought them back to the days when they were heading home, for you knew they felt they had accomplished their own kind of mission this day. They had come down to the nation’s capital to pay their respects and honor their fellow Americans whom they had fought with so many years ago.
Their efforts gave them the memory of a lifetime. They were not going to let a little thing like a government shutdown keep them away. They deserved to see their memorials. We are all free Americans because of what they did. We owe them. We always will.