A day of remembrance in the nation's capital
By MICHAEL S. DARNELL, JOE GROMELSKI AND MEREDITH TIBBETTS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 28, 2018
WASHINGTON — As dawn broke over the nation’s capital, hundreds of men and women, from all walks of life, were readying monuments to wars past and present scattered across the city.
On this day – Memorial Day – ceremonies held by and hosted for veterans from every major American conflict are held. Some are somber, like the wreath-laying ceremony at the National World War II Memorial. Others, like the raucous parade that runs down the street that separates the White House and the Washington Monument, are more joyous affairs.
No matter the location, or level of solemnity, the people gathered in Washington did so to remember the men and women who have lost their lives in the service of their county.
‘It was our duty’
At the sprawling monument dedicated to combatants from the “Greatest Generation,” a handful of World War II veterans laid wreaths at the base of an inscription that reads “Here we mark the price of freedom.” Above it sits 4,048 golden stars – each a representation of a 100 American servicemembers killed during the war.
Lost in the immensity of such staggering causalities is the affect it has on the men who remain. Bob Toski, an Army infantryman who fought in the war, says even nearly eight decades later the faces of those killed are not forgotten.
“When you’re a soldier and you survive, you don’t think about yourself,” said Toski, who played golf on the PGA tour for many years. “You think about the guys that never came back. That’s always deep in your heart.”
Toski, upon reflecting on the crowds of people that wanted to shake his hand and say “thank you,” said it was a humbling experience.
“I had so many friends that were killed … friends that never came back,” Toski said. “I’m a survivor, but you can’t forget those that gave their lives to keep democracy what it is today.”
The same thread of humility ran through many of the WWII veterans at the ceremony, from Harold Radish, a prisoner of war in a German camp who played down his horrific experiences, to Frank Ettinger, an Army Air Corps veteran who said Americans fought because they had to.
“I didn’t think we were particularly special,” Ettinger said. “It was our duty.”
'Larger than life'
Down the Mall, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Bobbie Fry spoke about an 11th Armored Cavalry soldier who died in 1967, and whose identity she only discovered a few weeks ago.
"It was Christmas," recalled Fry, who was a captain in the Army Nurse Corps. "We thought everything would kind of be a little quiet. They brought him into triage, but his wounds were severe. He died immediately. I just think about him every Christmas, and he also just kind of represents all of the 11th Armored Cav."
He was Pfc. Delbert Otis Lewis of Company M, 3rd Squadron.
"I get the 11th Armored Cav calendar every year," Fry said, "and on the back it listed all the years, all the deceased, and what units they were with. I said 'let me see how many died on that date," and it was just one. So I knew it had to be him. Then I went to the (Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund's online) Virtual Wall, and there he was. So now, when I remember him I remember that sweet face."
Fry hopes to be able to contact members of Lewis's family, now that she knows who he was.
At the Wall, volunteer Wayne Jones spoke about his father, also named Wayne, who died on Aug. 17, 1967 in a plane crash on Dragon Mountain in Vietnam while flying out of Pleiku with the 18th Aviation Co. in support of Special Forces troops. The bodies of Jones and three others on the DeHavilland Otter were found 19 days after they went missing.
"Initially, with him being missing, we were instructed by the Department of Defense not to give interviews, not to say anything about him that could've been used if he had in fact been captured. My mother continued that throughout her life. She's still living, but to this day she still will not talk about him. So growing up we never talked about my father at home."
The elder Jones had served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, then moved to Alaska and became a state trooper.
"To me, he was larger than life," his son recalled. "He was a disciplinarian, but he loved us all very much. I remember him dressed in his trooper's uniform with the leather of his holster squeaking as he walked out the door."
In 1964, the military beckoned again.
"He liked to fly. Army Aviation was looking for pilots, he had an opportunity to enter the warrant officer program. He graduated flight school, fixed wing, at Fort Rucker in September, 1965. We went to Germany for what was to be a guaranteed three-year tour, and after 14 months there he got orders for Vietnam."
Now, the son honors his dad by volunteering at the Vietnam memorial. Even though he lives in Blairsville, Ga., at the head of the Appalachian Trail, "I come and honor my dad every major holiday."
Train heroes honored at parade
The annual National Memorial Parade had as its grand marshals the three men whose thwarting of a terrorist attack on an Amsterdam-to-Paris train in 2015 is the subject of a recent Clint Eastwood film, "The 15:17 to Paris."
“We go throughout our daily lives and we often kind of forget the sacrifice that people have made for our freedom and our liberties," said Spencer Stone, who was an airman stationed at Travis Air Force Base when the train incident took place during his European vacation. "And so it’s really just a time to go outside of ourselves and reflect and honor those that have given their lives.”
Fellow train hero Alek Skarlatos, who was a member of the Oregon Army National Guard in 2015, remembered "the people that have died for our country, and their families, too, that they are survived by. You don’t really comprehend their loss unless you know somebody in the military who has died for this country. You can’t really appreciate that unless you talk to someone in their families. I think it means the world to everybody here.”
Country music star Trace Adkins, who opened the parade with a performance, said that he thinks "every day should be Memorial Day. I think we should always be mindful and respectful, and memorialize all the men and women who have made great sacrifices for us and for this country.
"I think we should all just remember all the blessings we have, and be thankful and grateful that we live in this wonderful free country."
Several World War II veterans served as honorary grand marshals.
Tim Holbert, executive director of the American Veterans Center — which runs the parade — called the event "not just a parade or celebration, but a commemoration where we try to tell stories of fallen heroes from across the generations.”