WASHINGTON — Beneath the steady gaze of Abraham Lincoln, the towering Washington Monument reaching into the skies just beyond him, Dean Grenier thought back to his wartime flying days.
“There were a few,” Grenier, 92, said of the stories from his service as a B-17 bomber pilot in World War II, where he flew 35 missions over Europe.
“I lived through them all, that’s what it was about,” he said from the steps below the Lincoln Memorial where President Lincoln presides from a throne of marble.
Grenier, who was born in Polson and would eventually become its mayor, was one of 84 WWII veterans from across Montana who saw the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial and the Korean Memorial Sunday on the first afternoon of a two-day Big Sky Honor Flight.
More than 500 Montana WWII veterans have visited the memorials and monuments through the flights, designed to thank and honor the Greatest Generation’s fight for freedom with an all-expense-paid, fully supported trip to the nation’s capital.
In Grenier’s case, the fight went on from 1942 to 1945.
Close calls were a part of a bomber pilot’s daily routine.
Once, Grenier switched places with a co-pilot in midflight so he could get a better outside view during a maneuver. The pilot was shot and killed during the flight.
Another day, Grenier’s plane crash-landed and was found by a friendly unit, which directed Grenier and his crew to sleep in a vacant tent inside its camp. When he awoke to a commotion, Grenier found the tent full of German prisoners of war.
“We got out of there quick,” he said.
From the steps of Lincoln’s memorial, Grenier and daughter, Debra Bonner, headed northeast on a short walk to remember another war.
Gary J. Grenier, son to Dean and older brother to Bonner, was killed at age 19 in Vietnam. He was Polson’s first Vietnam War casualty.
“It was Mother’s Day the day we found out,” Bonner said. “He had written mother a beautiful letter. It was the sweetest thing. It came a couple weeks after we heard he had been killed.”
Along with 58,195 other names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Gary’s name is etched on panel W25 into black granite filled with specks of silver that reflect back the shadows of those standing before it.
A National Park Service volunteer helped copy the name from the wall to a sheet of tracing paper.
It was the first time Bonner had visited the wall.
“It’s very moving,” she said.
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Sunday was a day of reflection and remembrance for many like Grenier, Montana veterans who have thought from time to time they’d like to see the monuments built in their honor.
Turns out, few actually make the trip. Because of that, Honor Flight was born.
The first Honor Flight left from Ohio in 2005 carrying 12 WWII veterans. To date, the flights have brought more than 100,000 to Washington, D.C.
Montana’s sixth Honor Flight carried 84 veterans, including five women and one Native American veteran, Charles E. Decrane, 92, of Pryor, the first Native veteran to take advantage of the flight.
On Monday, the Montanans will travel to the WWII Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, the Iwo Jima Memorial and the FDR Memorial before flying back to Billings.
They arrived Sunday afternoon to applause and cheers at Dulles International Airport, as dozens gathered at the gate with flags, signs and hugs to welcome them, thank them and greet them before the sightseeing began.
“I can’t believe this, “ said a grinning Howard Guenthner, 88, of Billings.
The crowds came from around Washington, D.C., and included veterans from many wars and Montanans now living in D.C.
“It’s important because this is our nation’s capital. It’s for them. This is their chance to see it,” said one greeter, Jim Weiskopf, a Vietnam veteran who lives near Washington, D.C., and has attended close to 40 Honor Flight welcomes.
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Later at the Lincoln Memorial, Eleanor Weidman, a U.S. Navy Women Accepted for Volunteer Service, WAVEs, recruit who once worked in Washington, D.C., said Mr. Lincoln was much the same today as he was in 1944.
“I don’t think he’s aged,” she said.
At the Korean War Memorial, Don Schenk, 96, met his great-granddaughter, 7-month-old Josephine Nakamura, for the first time as he toured the sites with son Clayton.
Also at the Korean memorial, Julie Taylor recalled the day her dad came home from his second war as she and her siblings, along with mother Fran Andersen, stood on the San Diego shoreline.
Fran Andersen, 95, met her husband on the grand adventure she undertook when she enlisted in 1943 as a WAVE.
While in WAVEs, she worked at a supply store in Miami, Fla., until “the stork came.” She then spent 10 years as a Navy wife. That duty included a 28-day ship ride to the Philippines with three young children.
“I went for the adventure and I had one,” Andersen said.
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“Wasn’t that something. It was amazing,” said Lewis Cook, 88, of Lincoln, after he saw the Lincoln Memorial for the first time Sunday.
Cook is a decorated war veteran who for most of his post-war life ran the Conrad Body Shop in Conrad before retiring to Lincoln.
First, though, Cook served in the 305th Infantry 77th Division of the U.S. Army from 1944-46, where he fought at Okinawa and was wounded. He was also part of the occupation of Hokkaido, Japan.
Cook traveled to Washington, D.C., Sunday for the first time with his son, Brian.
“I don’t think I’d have come without him,” Cook said, never mentioning that along with a handful of other honors, he was awarded the Purple Heart in a Navy hospital in Guam after being shot through the thigh after a mine exploded close to his feet.
Cook, like most veterans on the Big Sky Honor Flight, was hesitant to speak of his accomplishments during WWII and was almost at a loss for words when asked what the rest of America should know about what journalist Tom Brokaw christened the Greatest Generation.
Even among the memorials to commemorate the sacrifice of generations past, many like Cook acknowledged at least that times have changed.
“We grew up in both hard times and good times,” Cook said. “I did. There was the Depression, too, then things got better. Now, I’m wondering what will happen.”