It's amazing how much a person can learn in three days. My three-day education started at 5 a.m. on Friday, May 25, and ended about 10 p.m. Sunday, May 27, the day before Memorial Day. While most were planning short trips to the coast and family barbecues, I was planning a trip to Washington, D.C., with my 85-year-old father. It was called an Honor Flight -- and what an honor it was!
To be with my dad and 20 other World War II veterans was like living a chapter in the history books. For the vets, it was a tender remembrance of years gone by, battles fought and comrades who never made it home. A student could learn more from these men (aged 84 to 101) in those three days than an entire yearlong course on World War II history. They were a part of the history we read about as schoolkids. They actually lived it. Many others died for it.
There was Bobby, who at 15 lied about his age to join his older brother in the war. He saw action in the South Pacific at age 16. Then there was Louis, who at 101 still remembers the four years he served as if it were yesterday. My dad was on the USS Indianapolis, which carried the atomic bomb and was later torpedoed. More than 1,200 men died. Dad was a survivor. There were those at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, and James Lee, who served in both World War II and Korea. Each had a story to tell and a life to continue after the war. They all said that they just did what they were called upon to do. None considered himself a hero. I do. They literally "saved the world" from regimes determined to take away our freedoms and destroy our way of life.
Upon our arrival in Baltimore, the airport terminal was filled with hundreds of military and local people cheering and waving on each side of the aisle. They were there to thank and welcome men they had never met before. It was a hero's welcome. While in Washington, D.C., we had a whirlwind tour of the World War II, Korean, Vietnam and Lincoln memorials. We went to Arlington and watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Rep. Kevin McCarthy surprised us with a private tour of the Capitol with a catered lunch in his office. We sat where Congress sits and were feet away from where the president's State of the Union address is given. We stood right above where the presidential inauguration takes place. We were reliving a piece of history. While at the World War II Memorial, dozens of people, from school-aged kids to biker Vietnam veterans, went out of their way to thank the men for their service. Tears were flowing as total strangers from across the country would seek them out and grasp their hands in gratitude as if they were rock stars. In a way they were. They were definitely stars who rocked the world with courage and determination as no other generation before them. On our final day, Mission BBQ, outside of Baltimore, gave us a luncheon tribute, including the singing of the national anthem and recognition of each individual vet.
When the plane landed in Bakersfield, the veterans were treated once again to a hero's welcome. The hometown boys had returned. The airport terminal was transformed into a parade route bordered on each side with hundreds of fans, showing gratitude for a job well done. These men represented a father, husband, grandfather, son, brother or uncle who had served in some battle or war in some distant land. One veteran, in the midst of an interview with a local news reporter, found his thoughts turning to those who didn't come home. "They are the true heroes." he said. "They paid the ultimate sacrifice."
My three-day education had come to an end. It will, however, be a lesson that will be treasured for a lifetime.
Jim Waite is the CEO of JL Waite Financial Group. The lifelong Bakersfield resident, who is currently writing his father Erwin's biography, has been married for 30 years and is the father of 10 children.