A veteran standing near the World War II Memorial Tuesday pulled a tissue from his pocket to wipe tears from his eyes, and smiled.
“It can really get to you, you know?” Vernon Schmidt said, looking ahead toward the entrance to the memorial on the National Mall.
Schmidt had first been to the memorial a decade ago to see its dedication, along with other members of his 90th Infantry Division.
“A very, very emotional time,” he said.
This time he joined 65 other veterans, including four women, on a return trip as a part of California’s Central Valley Honor Flight. Many veterans have never seen the memorial built in their honor, so the Honor Flight Network was designed to get them there. Their journey was free, funded by donations.
They unloaded from three buses and congregated outside the memorial in the sunshine. Some were laughing, swapping stories and snapping photos. Others were sitting or standing quietly, likely reflecting on their experiences and memories from their time in service more than seven decades ago.
Central Valley Honor Flight President Alan Perry said the group just broke even on the flight two weeks ago. Foster Farms, a Livingston, Calif., poultry company, helped sponsor this flight, and Perry said they are now encouraging other companies to get involved.
Schmidt focused on the stories of those his division helped during the war. One was a German woman who secretly aided Allied troops escape from behind enemy lines.
“Because we liberated her, she comes to our reunions to thank our people for changing her life,” he said. “We had her here and she just wept.”
Schmidt said they also liberated her now-husband, who then was on a death march from a concentration camp. When she saw the stars on the World War II Memorial representing American military deaths, Schmidt said she told him, “those people paid the price for me.”
In Fresno, Schmidt said he serves as the leader of the American Ex-Prisoners of War chapter because his brother had been one.
The veterans filed into the memorial to claps and cheers from others visiting the site. Then they listened to a special performance by one of their own, World War II veteran Donald Dick, of Fresno. He played “Taps” on his father’s 97-year-old bugle to honor the group’s lost friends and fellow service members.
Then the veterans took time to visit the site, take pictures and chitchat. They are cared for by “guardians” _ volunteers who accompany them during the trip. Standing by the fountain, veteran Kenneth Lowe, from Manteca, Calif., teased his guardian and cracked jokes, then drew her and others close to recall stories of his service.
“Listen to this, it’s my biography,” he told her.
Lowe was an Army technician fifth grade in the European Theater of Operations on burial duty.
“It was only six companies and we took care of all of Europe . . . thousands of casualties,” Lowe said.
He mentioned a few never-to-be-forgotten moments: once when a sniper took two shots at him, and when he was in a building that was bombed.
“It didn’t kill us, but the whole ceiling came down,” he said.
Gazing at the memorial before him, Lowe said, “I didn’t expect all this.”
The Central Valley Honor Flight group plans to visit the Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday, where the father-in-law of Lowe’s son was recently buried. A few feet away, a group of elementary school students from Delaware asked a veteran in an Eisenhower jacket from the Army Air Corps to take a picture.
He spoke with them, posed for a photo, then let the students try on his jacket.
Eugene Mould, a bomber pilot in World War II who flew B-17s and B-24s in England, said Tuesday was “emotional and overwhelming.” The memorial to their service, he said, was the most meaningful part.
“It makes me tear up just a little bit,” Mould said.