Utah veterans visit WWII Memorial: 'It's absolutely overwhelming'
Washington • One by one, the middle schoolers lined up to shake the Utah veterans' hands.
The school group, from Bakersfield, Calif., had come to see the World War II Memorial, and then they found something better: Real, live WWII soldiers, those who had fought the war the kids had only read about.
"OK," Lewis Whitaker of St. George told the kids as they bounded by, thanking the veterans, "We did our part, now it's up to you."
Whitaker served in WWII as a Navy minesweeper, checking the coast from Shanghai to Taiwan for explosives. He beamed as tourists at the memorial parted for the Utah veterans to pass and began applauding. A Navy honor guard held post as the veterans, all in wheelchairs, saw the memorial dedicated to their service.
"This is something that brings tears to my eyes," Whitaker said, pausing to choke back his emotions. "We fought so hard for this country; we've got to keep it going."
The 25 veterans from Utah were part of Utah's second Honor Flight, an effort to bring the former soldiers to the nation's capital to visit the monuments and memorials they might otherwise never see in person.
St. George's Edward Baumgarten, who served as an Army paratrooper, had seen many pictures of the memorial and dreamed of visiting it.
"I didn't ever think I was going to be here and see it," he said, parking himself by the column dedicated to those soldiers who fought in the Philippines. Baumgarten made two combat jumps into the country, and was happy to greet a girl who saw him at the column and introduced herself. She was from the Philippines.
Maria Herrara, one of the school-group guides, was excited for the two generations to meet, especially as part of the students' Close Up experience that aims to enhance classroom teachings with a real-world lesson.
"The kids are so emotional about it," Herrara said. "Now they can connect what they see in books with real life."
Private donations helped bring the veterans from Utah to Washington, where the group got to meet Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee and Reps. Rob Bishop, Jim Matheson and Chris Stewart.
"We've got to make sure that as many of them as possible are able to see this," Lee said after posing for pictures with each veteran. "This is a generation that isn't going to be with us much longer."
For those who came, it was a moment they won't forget.
"It's absolutely overwhelming and heartwarming," said William Bassett, 87, of Holladay, who served in the South Pacific with the Navy during WWII and then in the Army in Korea years later. "It brings tears to your eyes."
Bassett joined the Navy the day he turned 17, and his daughter, Kristen Micklos of Cottonwood Heights, helped push his wheelchair under the Pacific entrance to the memorial and passed the columns for each state, including Utah.
"It's wonderful to see his reaction to the appreciation and attention he's getting," she said. "These are men who don't expect a lot of attention."
Family members helped line up the veterans to face the memorial's main reflecting pool as the honor guard played Taps. Scores of tourists stopped in their tracks to put their hand to their heart, and waited to greet the veterans.
"It does a lot for them to see how many people care," said Spanish Fork's Barry Whitaker, whose dad served as the Navy minesweeper. "It's so awesome to see the attention."