Time is a thief that comes in the night and robs us. Even the bravest and the best of us.
That’s the thought that raced through my mind as I looked at 30 World War II veterans gathered the other day at Sea-Tac Airport.
They are the last of a great, dying generation, and they had come to remind themselves that there are some things that cannot be stolen by the thief, things that can never be touched. Even by time.
Dale Nakken is a soft-spoken man of 88 years. He was a Navy man during the war, serving in a PT boat squadron. His kindly eyes looked right into my own, “I’m 88-years-old and I’m at the end of my journey,” he said, “and this is one more honor that I’m receiving from our people.”
They are called Honor Flights, put on by thankful souls to celebrate World War II vets while we still can. There are non-profit Honor Flight chapters all over the country, granting, as they call it, “one last mission.” This mission would take our Puget Sound vets to Washington, D.C. to visit the World War II Memorial and Arlington Cemetery.
Eighty-eight-year old Ted Gary smiled when I asked him what he thought of the old soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines waiting for their flight.
“I look at all these old guys,” he said, “and then I realize I’m one of them!”
This would be the first ever Honor Flight for Puget Sound veterans.
Al Linse, a B-24 pilot over Germany 70 years ago, looked around and smiled, “I think it’s wonderful that we’re all here,” he said, “and I think it’s wonderful for these people to do this.”
As the group slowly shuffled towards the Southwest gate, some in wheelchairs, a voice rang out, “Somebody left their cane at security!”
It’s not an easy thing to fly 30 senior citizens across the country.
They were a stoic lot, with nothing left to prove to anyone, on their way to Washington, D.C. for some unfinished business.
Guy Halverson, a radar technician in the South Pacific, talked about what he thought it would be like. “It’ll be a very solemn ceremony but it’s something I want to do… before I cash in my chips, you know!” And then he laughed.
Boarding the plane, Hilmer Swanson, tall and dapper at 90, summed up his fellow travelers. “They’ve been there… they’ve done that… they’re a band of brothers.”
The first thing that happened when they landed in Baltimore was a big kiss. An attractive flight attendant planted a smooch right on the cheek of 89-year old Pearl Harbor survivor Henry Richmond. He was stunned for a moment, then proclaimed it, “the highlight of the whole trip!”
Each and every veteran was greeted by cheers and applause as they got off the plane and walked through the concourse.
Some were amazed, others grinned ear to ear as they walked past well-wishers holding signs, offering their hugs and their thanks.
A woman holding little American flags asked Harold Wanamaker to pose for a picture.
Paul Justice, known as Pee Wee since his days in the Marines, got a big hug in his wheelchair. “Thank you SO MUCH!” the woman said.
It was a wonderful welcome. But the wonder of this trip was only beginning.
Once they’d checked into the hotel, a few of them sat in the lobby and traded stories. Some had old photos to share. What a privilege it was to listen in to this group of men!
I spoke to Bill Shape, a Navy Medic who said, “It’s really good to talk to some of these people because next year they may not be here. And I may not be here either.” He smiled as he said it, and I asked him, “How can you be so cheerful about that?”
He shrugged his shoulders, “What can i do about it? It’s inevitable. So why worry about it?”
The next morning they loaded up into a bus and followed as escort of flag carrying Harleys towards Washington, D.C.
The first stop was Arlington Cemetery.
There was silence on the bus as it passed thousands and thousand of white markers. I heard Otto Rosenthall say quietly, “I came back. But every one of them is someone who didn’t make it.”
I didn’t have to ask anyone else what they were thinking. I KNEW what they were thinking.
“There but for the grace of God…”
In a group they watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The clicking of the soldier’s boots, the handling of the rifle, the quiet dignity… they took it all in in silence.
When Dale Nakken was finally able to speak he whispered, “It’s moving. It’s really moving. But you’ve gotta be proud of your country and this young man standing like that. You gotta be proud.” His eyes were wet when he said it. Maybe it was just the wind.
The government was shut down that week, and when the bus pulled up close to the World War II Memorial, there was a protest in progress at on the National Mall.
Thousands of people, mostly military veterans themselves, were protesting the shut-down, and when they saw the bus unloading World War II vets, they flocked over to greet them.
For a moment it threatened to become an overwhelming situation. A police officer, fearing a kind of riot, ordered the bus to move away, even though not all the vets were unloaded. It did so, circling the block and then coming back to unload the rest.
As they finally made their way to the Memorial, politics politely stepped aside. The protesters formed two lines, cheering and thanking the vets as they passed by.
At the Memorial, there was a prayer and a speech. Taps was played on a bugle. It was a somber, sobering ceremony.
And then they were turned loose, to wander around and explore the place…to reflect on what it meant and how each of their own experiences fit somehow into this massive mosaic, built on a foundation of incalculable sacrifice and loss.
Other visitors were attracted to Henry Richmond’s cap which said, “Pearl Harbor Survivor”. They asked him questions, and took pictures.
In his slow Southern drawl, Henry said, “I’m always out to make new friends.”
Ivan Larson saw the very worst that World War II had to offer. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and for those who know about the war, nothing else need be said. He fought back tears, his voice quivering, “”Well you know, I try to forget about it…but it never leaves.”
Navy man Dale Nakken’s wheelchair rolled up to the part of the monument representing his home state of Montana. He looked around in amazement. “Boy isn’t this something, though?” he said.
Dale had a special purpose here. He held a laminated letter and photo in his hand. He held it up, hand shaking, and said, “This is the story of Jack Kuniff.”
Jack Kuniff was Dale’s best buddy growing up. Jack couldn’t join the Navy because of bad eyesight. He wound up as a foot soldier in the Army, slogging his way through Europe.
The letter, sent to Dale on November 11th, 1944, read in part, “I suppose you’re right in the midst of it down in the Pacific. But give her hell and you’ll come out OK. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.”
Jack Kuniff died 35 days later in the Battle of the Bulge. He was 19.
Dale had held on to that letter for 70 years. He told me that sometimes in his dreams he can see Jack, but he can never touch him.
“This is for Jack, ” he said. “So I’m gonna leave it here.”
The letter was placed up on the Montana monument. Dale sat back down in his chair.
He looked relieved somehow. “Yeah!” he said. “So long Jack!” He saluted, and then looked towards us. “Now I’ve let him go.”
Seventy years is a long time to hold on to anything. Especially a friend.
When the bus rolled to a stop at the memorial to the U.S. Marines, only one man got off the bus.
Pee Wee Justice looked up at a massive, beautiful statue of the American flag being raised at Iwo Jima.
Pee Wee was there that day. He saw the flag go up. He witnessed what happened on Iwo Jima, where 6,000 Americans died, 1,800 of them in one day. The images haunt him still.
“Oh…it’s with me every night,” he said, voice shaking, tears rolling down his cheek. “I have nightmares every night.”
He looked at the statue for a long while, and then he said the most amazing thing. “We made a vow that not a one of them would survive,” and there was suddenly fire in his eyes. “Some did,” he continued, “but it wasn’t because we didn’t want to kill ’em!”
He stopped for a long moment, and chose his words carefully. “…but I do want to say this: It took 45 years for God to take the hatred out of my heart for the Japanese and the Germans.” He was crying now, “And today I love them just as I love you. All because of God. He made it possible.”
He turned to his son who was standing next to him, put his head on his shoulder, and wept like a child.
Time is a thief that comes in the night and robs us.
But some wounds don’t heal. Some memories don’t fade. Deeds done in desperation, acts of vengeance and valor, atrocities, vulgarities, heroism and horrors…
Even time won’t dare touch some things.
The homecoming at Sea-Tac Airport was a joyous affair. There were hundreds of people, bagpipers, re-enactors dressed up in vintage World War II gear, friends and relatives, young service members, flag wavers, patriots, citizens young and old, offering their cheers and their respect.
“Thank you!” they shouted out as the Honor Flight veterans walked and rolled past them. “Thank you for what you did!”
Henry Richmond’s drawl was wracked with emotion. “It made me cry… it gave me a warm heart.”
And Dale Nakken, the man who left the letter at the Memorial, sat wide-eyed with amazement. “The thing you lose, I think, is that you think people don’t care. But they DO! They really care! And ain’t that something!”
An entire generation is slipping away from us. But these men, the men of the first ever Puget Sound Honor Flight, after one more mission, know at least that time will never steal what they did.
The thief in the night is shamed in the presence of heroes.