WASHINGTON — Ryan Williamson rested his palm on his father Paul's back as they stood staring at the white, sun-warmed stone monument to Americans who fought in World War II.
It was the anniversary of D-Day, the landings at Normandy during WWII, and the two men braved long flight delays, the early summer heat and Beltway traffic just to be here. They, and more than 80 other veterans, waited a year and a half just to take this trip from Kentucky.
The trips are part of Honor Flight, a series of flights that bring veterans to the nation's capital.
"The old men joked and carried on like they were kids," said Paul Williamson, 86, who traveled as part of Honor Flight Bluegrass, the Kentucky chapter of the organization. "It was wonderful. Everyone just seemed to gel."
Hundreds of WWII veterans die every day. The Honor Flights try to take as many veterans to the national war memorials as fast as possible.
Paul Williamson's memory becomes a little foggy when it comes to things that happened when he was a 19-year-old corporal in World War II. But there are some things that stand out clearly.
He remembers the Battle of the Bulge and the treacherous snowstorm, when they had to set their trucks on fire to keep the Germans from getting their supplies.
He remembers receiving a medal by the French government for his service in the war, a medal he proudly wore on his hat during his tour of the monument and showed to French dignitaries who happened to be on the Mall giving a speech.
He remembers what it felt like knowing he could die. He and his fellow soldiers were on the move for four days, stopping intermittently to fire their rifles.
"It was most probable that we were going to be killed or taken as a prisoner," Williamson said.
During their visit to Washington, the veterans were scheduled to visit the WWII Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Iwo Jima Monument. The trip was free to the veterans and included ground transportation and meals.
Williamson and his son, Ryan, navigated the monument weaving between the other veterans. They posed for pictures. And in between posing for pictures with tourists and looking out at the Mall, father told son stories of battle.
He told his son of fighting for Gen. George S. Patton, and also of the men who came back and "acted a little crazy". The men who, unlike their comrades, never were able to settle into good-paying factory or government jobs and buy homes and raise families in the suburbs that were sprouting up outside major cities.
"Did they sometimes end up homeless?" Ryan Williamson asked.
"Yes," his father nodded.
Later, Paul Williamson shook hands with the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who was on hand to thank the men for their service.
"We will always celebrate and also promise we will remain the strongest military on the face of this earth no matter what budget we get," Dempsey told the men.
Williamson was one of the first in line to shake Dempsey's hand. As he posed for the picture for the official photographers on hand, father and son caught each other's eye.
Then the son, too, raised his camera to preserve the moment.
McClatchy Newspapers 2011