WASHINGTON, D.C. — Kenneth Baeth, a terminally ill World War II veteran, sat in his wheelchair in the middle of the National World War II Memorial on Monday and choked back tears.
“At the end of my life, I look around this memorial and see the power of the nation,” he said. “It’s absolutely amazing. It’s emotional.”
The 91-year-old Baeth said the memorial exceeded his expectations.
He is one of the 86 Montana World War II veterans who traveled to Washington, D.C., on Sunday with the third Big Sky Honor Flight.
Baeth was given priority because he is dying and in the care of Rocky Mountain Hospice. He was accompanied on the tour by his son, Roger Baeth, of Missoula.
“He’s having a ball,” Roger Baeth said. “He likes the attention, but it has been extremely emotional. It’s bringing back lots of memories.”
The senior Baeth was surprised by a visit from representatives of the Washington-based National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. They had read the story of his heroism in The Billings Gazette earlier this month and wanted to meet him.
Rebecca Trout, an assistant with the We Honor Veterans Program within the HPCO, said, “We wanted to make sure we got out here to give him our thanks as he sees his memorial.”
Jennifer Ford, director of communications for the National Hospice Foundation, also wanted to meet Baeth.
“It’s such a special moment for him,” she said. “Because he’s at the end of his life, it’s an important piece of his life.”
In October 1942, at age 20, Baeth enlisted in the U.S. Army Corps, a forerunner to the U.S. Air Force. He soon found himself in the midst of World War II. He went on to fly 40 missions on a B-24 Liberator with nine other men aboard. He operated a machine gun turret in the “nose” of the plane until he was discharged in October 1945.
Baeth and his fellow veterans were greeted at the memorial by U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans Committee.
“That was just neat,” said Bob Frankforter, 96, of Kinsey. He posed for photos with both of the senators.
Baucus and Tester spent nearly two hours with the veterans, shaking hands, talking and posing for photos. Tester said the World War II Memorial is his favorite in Washington.
“There are fewer and fewer of them,” Tester said of the World War II veterans. “What they did for this country was pretty incredible and will probably never be replicated by another generation.”
Baucus said there is no other group of men and women he respects more than World War II veterans.
“They represent the best of Montana and the best of our nation,” an emotional Baucus said.
The visit to the memorial was filled with emotion. One of the more touching moments came when Sue Davidson, a member of the Big Sky Honor Flight Committee, displayed the medal of a fallen World War II veteran.
Raymond Wise Jr., 91, of Billings was scheduled to be aboard the third Honor Flight on Sunday and Monday. He never made it. He died Jan. 22.
Davidson carried his obituary from The Billings Gazette, the Bronze Star he received for heroics in the Battle of the Bulge, and his Purple Heart.
“I had to bring him with me,” she said, wiping away tears. “I wanted that piece of him, his spirit, to be here with us today.”
Among those greeting the veterans during their 36-hour trip to Washington, D.C., were total strangers, including Nrupal Choudhari, a tourist from India. He stood near the buses and asked if he could take his photo with some of the veterans.
“It’s extremely touching and humbling to see these men and what is being done for them,” he said.
Nearly 70 years went by before the World War II Memorial stood in honor of the men and women who served.
The Montana veterans — now in their 80s and 90s, and one even older than 100 — strolled through the monument under sunny skies and took turns having their photos taken under the 17-foot granite Montana pillar.
The next Honor Flight trip is scheduled for May 19-20.
Big Sky Honor Flight is a nonprofit organization that is part of a national network recognizing the courage and sacrifice of “the greatest generation.”
The World War II Memorial pays tribute to the 16 million Americans who served during the war. Some 405,399 of those were killed or declared missing. That is second only to the loss of more than 620,000 Americans during the Civil War.