WASHINGTON, D.C. — The nation’s capital is a hot spot for students traveling here to see some of the most magnificent memorials in the country and to learn about history.
On Sunday, as a group of 86 Montana World War II veterans descended on the National Mall, a group of young students had the chance to encounter living history, and they took full advantage of it.
The Montana veterans became one of the biggest attractions on the mall.
The young group from Gilbert H. Hood Middle School in Derry, N.H. corralled some of the veterans and peppered them with questions.
One of those surrounded was Ray Robison, 73, of Billings. He is a member of the Big Sky Honor Flight Committee and accompanied the group of veterans as a helper. Robison served with the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War during 1970 and ‘71 as a helicopter pilot.
The students wanted to know what the war was like and what it all meant.
“I just tried to explain to them that in World War II you knew who the enemy was and where they were,” said Robinson. “In Vietnam, you didn’t know who the enemy was or where they were. It could have been a boy across the street or a woman in a vegetable market.”
Robison held court with the students for about 15 minutes and the young crowd grew as it drew passing World War II veterans into the discussion.
“I was touched,” Robison said. “It brought back memories. I could see they were really interested. They were very sincere young ladies and gentlemen and didn’t ask off-the-wall questions.”
The presence of the veterans on the National Mall capped a day on which they were celebrated as heroes. They were greeted at Dulles International Airport by representatives of U. S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and U.S. Rep. Steve Daines. A brass band played patriotic songs, such as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” as some veterans wiped tears from their cheeks. Children joined their parents to wave flags and shake a veteran’s hands.
“It was just overwhelming,” said Russ Hodge, 91, of Lewistown. “I never in my life expected anything like that.” He served in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946, mostly in France, Belgium and Germany as a gunner on a 55mm anti-tank gun.
The veterans spent about 90 minutes touring the Lincoln, Vietnam War and Korean War memorials.
It was the Korean memorial that most captured the attention of Paul “Casey” Stengel, 89, of Miles City. He’s seen the “Ghost Platoon” twice before, but there is something about the 19, 10-foot statues that mesmerizes him.
Stengel served in the U.S. Army from 1942-45 and participated in the invasion of Guam, Leyte and Okinawa.
“I get the feeling I’m right there with them and I know exactly what they’re doing,” he said. “I can identify with them. It gets to me.”
The veterans were among the third tour to Washington D.C. of the Big Sky Honor Flight of Montana. The veterans ranged in age from 82 to 96. Five of the veterans were women. The majority of the veterans served in the U.S. Navy and Army.
Also making the trip was Lt. Gov. John Walsh of Helena. The Big Sky Honor Flight Committee named him Honorary State Chairman in part to raise the visibility of the program throughout the state. Walsh, 52, served in Iraq with the Montana National Guard from 2004 to 2005. He was commander of the 1st Battalion 163rd Infantry. It is the same Battalion in which many of the World War II veterans also served.
“To be in the presence of these men who were considered the Greatest Generation is a privilege and an honor,” Walsh said. “For me to be able to assist in any way I can and give me to them for their service and sacrifice is really the very least I can do.”
Big Sky Honor Flight is a non-profit organization created to honor Montana’s veterans. The organization transports the state’s heroes to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at the memorial dedicated specifically to their service. Priority is given to the senior veterans — World War II survivors, along with those veterans who may be terminally ill.
The fourth tour of Big Sky Honor Flight to Washington D.C. is set for May 19-20. A fifth tour is scheduled for June 16-17. The sixth and seventh flights are tentatively scheduled for late summer and early fall.
Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy, who serves as vice present of the Big Sky Honor Flight Committee, said tours will continue until every World War II veteran who can go has made the trip.
Each flight costs about $155,000 and is paid for entirely with donations. World War II veterans pay nothing for the experience.