WASHINGTON, D.C. — Only three strides into the vast Korean War Veterans Memorial on Sunday, Warren Dexter halted, convulsing with emotion.
His son, Russell, steadied him with a firm embrace and whispered words of reassurance.
Dexter didn’t walk another 10 feet before dissolving into tears. Seeing the “Ghost Platoon” reminded him of being with his comrades in the Korean War, and he relived it as though it were yesterday.
After serving in World War II, Dexter remained in the Naval Reserves. In 1950, when the Korean War began, he was called to active duty. He served aboard the USS Curtis, the USS Pine Island and the USS Salsbury Sound.
At the memorial, he hunted for the name of one of his fallen comrades.
“We lost some of the men who didn’t come back,” he said.
Unlike the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial does not have the names of each fallen soldier etched into the monument.
Nevertheless, Dexter continued the search.
“I can remember trying to get them out of the water,” he said, starting to heave with sobs. “One was dead. I was trying to pull them out, and I slipped and fell. I want to see if his name is there.”
The unit had been returning from patrol in North Korea when an engine went out and they crashed.
“I couldn’t get it right,” Dexter said. “I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
His shoulders heaved as he sobbed. He did not speak again.
His were the signature emotions of the day: sobs and silence.
Dexter, 87, was one of 87 veterans who traveled to Washington, D.C., on Sunday as part of the second tour of the Big Sky Honor Flight of Montana. The group was to spend 1 ½ days in the nation’s capital visiting some of the nation’s most spectacular monuments that pay homage to men and women of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
The group spent about 90 minutes on an emotional roller-coaster tour of the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
Len Bestrom, 85, of Laurel, served in World War II and the Korean War. He made his way around the three memorials. As he stood dwarfed by the Lincoln Memorial, he had only two words: “It’s super.”
He was still overcome by the welcome at Dulles International Airport, where U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a member of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee, greeted each veteran and shook each of their hands.
“The welcome made my eyes start to sweat,” Bestrom said. “It was unbelievable.”
Laurence Shipp, 90, of Miles City, eyed the Lincoln Memorial and was nearly speechless. “It’s outstanding. Unbelievable.”
As the afternoon wound down, Bill Skorupa, 89, of Bridger, toured the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and caressed the names etched into the granite.
“I don’t think the war should have ever been fought,” he said, shaking his head. "It was a mistake. The war was a waste.”
The sun had not yet set on the day and Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy, who serves as vice president of the Big Sky Honor Flight Committee, said plans are under way for flights in April, May and June of 2013. Each trip will cost about $155,000 and will be paid for entirely with donations.
Kennedy said he hopes to have all the money raised by Jan. 1. Time is of the essence, he said. Many of those who would have been eligible have either died or are now too ill to travel.
“I really do feel if we’re going to do justice to their service and get them on Honor Flight, we’re going to have to step it up,” Kennedy said.