It was just a lineup to take a group photo at the World War II Memorial. But as the cadre of veterans began falling in before the Field of Gold Stars, another line formed.
School children and tourists flocked to the East Texas veterans in droves, respectfully thanking the 32 men and one woman for their military service. They asked questions about the war and listened intently to the answers from the aging warriors.
The line lengthened, stretching from the Field of Stars, around the Rainbow Pool, reaching almost to the Pacific Theater Pavilion.
The impromptu receiving line was the defining moment of the Brookshire's/Super 1 WWII Heroes Flight, a special time of smiles and tears, hugs and teasing -- and pride extending in both directions.
Doyle Dove, of Canton, and Jack Terry, of Tyler, enjoyed the sudden stardom, smiling broadly and gladly submitting to dozens of hugs. Robert Shaw, of Lindale, and George Regas, of Whitehouse, called it a highlight of the trip.
They were impressed by the questions asked and by the children's knowledge of the war.
The encounter lasted nearly half an hour, turning the expansive monument of granite, bronze and running water into a living, breathing memorial - a timely salute to the men and women it sought to honor. For a time on that Friday afternoon under a blue Washington sky, the veterans and the memorial were one.
"They'll never forget that," Shaw said.
"I know I won't," Regas replied.
THE HEROES FLIGHT
The Heroes Flight, May 31-June 2, was the fourth such flight sponsored by Brookshire Grocery Co. With its successful completion, more than 140 East Texas veterans have been escorted free of charge to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Memorial and other historic sites in the nation's capital.
Sam Anderson, Brookshire's public relations director, said the flights are intended to honor the men and women who served during World War II, giving them a chance to visit the World War II Memorial, which most have never seen because it was not finished until 2004. He said the flights are also "a way to salute veterans of all wars and active duty military as well to show them we appreciate and support them."
Anderson said the veterans are quick to say, "I'm not really a hero. I just did what was expected of me." But he disagrees. "We certainly enjoy many freedoms in this country today because of the sacrifices of these men and women. They fought a very large evil at that time."
Country singer Trace Adkins, who flew to Tyler early in the morning to launch the Heroes Flight by singing the nationalaAnthem, said he was humbled to be among them. He said there is no more noble cause than the Heroes Flights. "One of the gentlemen thanked me for being here," Adkins said. "I just told him, 'Hey, we're all just standing in your shadow.' That's the way I feel about it."
Anderson praised the many volunteers who go unheralded but make the flights special. He singled out the flag-waving Welcome Home Soldier volunteers, the Tyler Police Department and riders of the Patriot Guard, who led the bus through the rain to the Interstate, the USO in Dallas, and similar groups in Washington that welcome every group.
WAR AND COURAGE
Jerry Higgs, of Flint, soon found himself wired to a Park Service microphone, telling a cluster of visitors at the World War II Memorial of the many invasions he experienced in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters aboard Navy LSTs, large landing craft used to push men and equipment onto the beaches under fire. He took part in the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Anzio and Southern France, then sailed to the Pacific to ferry soldiers and Marines to shore at Mindoro, Mindanao, Subic Bay and Manila.
"Anzio was the bloodiest of them all," he told them. "The Germans were terribly strong, killing men by the hundreds." He described the carnage in the water, the fear that gripped the crew as Anzio Annie, a giant German artillery piece, rained death down on the beach and the ships crowded near the shore.
Higgs described what an invasion was like. "On our LST (land ship tank), we had four smaller LCVPs. We would load 30 men, coming down rope ladders and getting on our boats. We would rendezvous and when given the signal head in to the beach. All the noise and racket that the war machine makes was unimaginable."
"As we headed in, you could see the rockets from the British rocket ships. On either side of you, in back and all around, you saw our boats being hit by mines, by artillery fire or by misfires from the British rocket ships. You would see those boats explode, see the men and body parts in the water ... and you would take your boat through that to the beach. That's what you were trained to do and what you were going to do," he said. "That was the American fighting soldier."
Jack Hester, standing out of the rain under a tree, described landing with the 5th Marines on Iwo Jima. "I was on the sixth wave of LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle, personnel -- or Higgins boats). We hit just below Suribachi, where the flag was raised."
Hester said the fighting was fierce. "They fought to the death. We fought to save our lives ... to live. The whole island was honeycombed with caves. They could go from Mount Suribachi all the way to the north end. We never knew where they were."
Hester was trained to fire a 50-caliber machinegun, but that weapon was destroyed before he was able to fire it. He joined a 30-caliber machinegun crew for the rest of the battle.
Elzie Clark, who served with Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army, said he "really enjoyed talking to the kids. Those young people were really concerned about the war. They were more knowledgeable about it than I thought."
At the base of the Iwo Jima Memorial, he engaged four teenagers in an animated conversation as the rain began to fall. In broad gestures and words, he talked about his service in the Army, his friend and what happened when German soldiers ambushed their halftrack. Clark's friend was hit by a German round that blew away the top of his body. The teens gasped. One young girl clutched her hand to her mouth, her face ashen.
His story, so unexpectedly honest and graphic, clearly made an impact.
Jack Jackson, of Tyler, graduated from high school in May 1941 and turned 18 a month before Pearl Harbor. A freshman at UT when Pearl Harbor was bombed, he quickly volunteered for aviation training.
His unit, the 72nd Troop Carrier Squadron of the 434th Troop Carrier Group, led the glider drop in Normandy on D-Day. Jackson flew C47s, cargo planes that also towed gliders. Each glider carried 22 paratroopers or 6-10 troopers and a jeep.
"The drop was scary," he said, "mainly because we learned later that Gen. Omar Bradley had predicted before D-Day that as many as 50 to 75 percent of the airborne troops would be casualties. That would have been 17,000 casualties," Jackson said. "Bradley told Ike it was worth the risk."
After D-Day, Jackson flew his C47 in Operation Market Garden in Holland, dropping Americans in both the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. The final jump, he said, was the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945. "It was the largest and highly successful. We got there just ahead of Gen. Patton," Jackson said. "Other times, we hauled lots of munitions and gasoline, and dropped supplies to soldiers surrounded during Battle of the Bulge."
Jackson ticked off the losses. "Our squadron had 12 to 14 planes. We lost two on D-Day, but all had lots of bullet holes in them. We lost four during Market Garden (the worst losses for the squadron), two at Bastogne and one other - nine lost in all."
Jackson, having survived his war in Europe, said his squadron would have been sent to the Pacific if the atomic bomb had not been dropped. He stayed in the Air Force on active reserve for 24 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.
Adolphus Barnett, of Jefferson, served in Gen. Omar Bradley's 1st Army, which made the initial invasion at Normandy on June 6. "I went over on the 10th, four days after D-Day," he said. Barnett served with the Red Ball Express, a supply truck convoy that stretched out behind Bradley's fast-advancing Army and kept it on the move.
Asked if he was scared, he laughed, saying, "I had never been around all that artillery. I had never been around that. But we had to get adjusted real quick. We had to. Because nobody else was going to do it for us. When you're told you got to do it, you're gonna do it."
Later, he was attached to the 99th Division, an inexperienced division that played a pivotal role in the Battle of the Bulge when it refused to yield to German assaults and held its ground on the north end of the Bulge.
Al Gallo, of Frankston, captained a B-24 and flew 34 combat missions with the Army Air Corps. "They had all that antiaircraft to shoot us down. They had us pinpointed.
"We were bombing a factory in northern Italy," he said, "and we were getting flak from a pass. They had antiaircraft guns on rail cars (hidden in caves). As we came over, they would back those out and shoot. So the next day our target was to hit the mountainside, and all that stuff would come down and seal off the entrance. Then we would do the other side."
"It was just ordinary things," he said matter-of-factly, failing to mention the mission on which his plane was shot down.
At the Navy Memorial and Museum, George Regas, a Navy man from Whitehouse, stood over a model of President John F. Kennedy's PT 109 and described his job, manning the 50-caliber machinegun on the desk of another similar boat -- PT 429. He saw action off Okinawa, then was transferred to the Seabees.
"There were a lot of good memories and a few sad ones," he said. "My heroes were the ones who went from island to island."
Regas endured some good-natured teasing from the volunteers when, during a Friday night dinner and dance, he jumped from his wheelchair to swing dance with a tall blonde dancer from Virginia. "I can't walk too good, but I can dance," he said. The party in the Knights of Columbus Hall in McLean, Va., ended a full day that included the World War II Memorial, the Korean Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Air Force Memorial, Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Silence is the rule at the Tomb of the Unknowns, where a lone sentry steps off 21 paces, halts, turns, then waits the required 21 seconds before retracing his steps. The tomb is guarded 24 hours a day in any weather.
The lone sentinel quietly walks the path, forming a one-man barricade between visitors and the tomb. There is almost no sound but the patter of rain in the leaves overhead, the dull murmur of a distant air conditioner and the call of a blue jay. The veterans wait.
Since July 2, 1927, and for every second of those 85 years, the 3rd Infantry (The Old Guard) has performed this duty. Twenty-one steps, 21 seconds, 21 steps, 21 seconds. The rain falls, but no one leaves. The sentry can't seek shelter; neither will the veterans.
"The sentry looks so young," one whispers. "How young were you when you went to war?" came the reply.
At the half hour, the relief commander quietly enters the plaza, salutes and announces the changing of the guard. The relieving sentinel arrives to a white-glove inspection, then is marched by the commander to the middle of the walkway where they meet the retiring sentinel. All three salute the unknowns.
"Pass on your orders," barks the commander of the guard.
"Post and orders. Remain as directed," the retiring guard replies.
"Orders acknowledged," says the relief sentinel, who steps to the mat and resumes the solitary patrol as the others retire.
Twenty-one steps, 21 seconds, 21 steps, 21 seconds. The rain falls harder as the visitors drift back to their buses. The quiet of Arlington National Cemetery closes in again as the sentinel walks his lonely post.
The veterans, for the most part, are quiet as the bus follows the narrow winding pathways through the maze of white monuments out of the cemetery. They reflect on those times so many years distant when they were young and innocent, eager and fearful, yet proud and ready to fight.
They remember their friends, some who made it home, some who did not. Elzie Clark remembers the friend he lost to a German bazooka round. Helen Horbury remembers her brother, whose B-24 went down in flames. Aalon Ferguson remembers the Marines who died at his side on Guadalcanal. And Homer Garrett remembers the 96 who died when his ship blew up beneath his feet off Utah Beach.
These were not just numbers represented by the 400 gold stars at "their" memorial ... these were friends, and family, who will always be 18 and 19 in their memories. More than 65 years later, they still miss them.
The East Texas veterans have lived long, full, productive, successful lives since those war-filled days. They came home - not to ticker tape parades but to a country ready to return to normalcy. They put the war behind them and went to work rebuilding a nation.
But the war never really left them. World War II has been over for 67 years, and many of the 16 million American men and women who served have raised children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren without fully sharing what they experienced. It remains too vivid, too real and very near the surface.
Perhaps Oliver Wendell Holmes put it best while describing another generation of Americans in a Memorial Day speech in 1884, when he said, "In our youth, our hearts were touched with fire."
That fire still burns in the East Texas veterans, in the throngs that honored them in Washington, Dallas and Tyler - and happily, they found, in the hearts of the young people who stepped up to shake their hands and say, "thank you for your service."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Dave Berry is editor of the Courier-Times--Telegraph.
A Vietnam veteran, he has served as a volunteer escort on two Heroes Flights.
Walter Allen of Pittsburg and Adolphus Barnett of Jefferson visit the grave of Audie Murphy, considered the most decorated serviceman in World War II. (Staff Photo By Dave Berry)