By Cindy Uken
It would be nearly 60 years before a monument stood in their honor in the nation's capital, but on Saturday at least 97 awestruck and emotional Montana veterans visited the U.S. National World War II Memorial.
The men and women, now in their 80s and 90s, strolled around the fountain and gathered under the imposing, 17-foot granite pillar to have their photos taken.
The chartered flight from Billings to the memorial was a special honor designed to commemorate the sacrifices of these veterans. It gave the men and women an opportunity to visit and reflect on the hard years of the war and all the years since.
Some of the veterans sought solace at the memorial, which was first imagined in 1987. It wasn't until 1993 that the World War II Memorial Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
The memorial pays tribute to the 16 million Americans who served during the war. Some 405,399 of those were killed or declared missing. That is second only to the loss of more than 620,000 Americans during the Civil War.
Other Montana veterans visiting the memorial soaked in the significance of its expanse. "It means we did a good job," said Q.P. Hudson, an 89-year-old U.S. Navy veteran from Billings.
It was evident from setting foot on the sidewalk of the vast monument that it would mean different things to different veterans. For Phillip "Herk" Lyons, 86, of Billings, it was an emotional journey. Lyons is the only submarine veteran on the historic inaugural journey of Big Sky Honor Flight. He experienced a mixture of a little guilt and some gratitude while navigating the monument.
He and a young Navy buddy were serving as members of a submarine relief crew, waiting eagerly for their chance to serve aboard a sub. When the opportunity to fill one spot came up, the pair cut cards to see who would go. Lyons drew the losing card and his friend boarded the submarine and never returned. The sub was sunk by enemy fire.
"I turned out to be the lucky one," Lyons said. "I am fortunate to be home to talk about it. This is quite emotional for me."
As Lyons toured the 56 granite pillars arranged in a semi-circle around a plaza, he was struck by both its beauty and the generosity of Montanans who donated $152,000 to make the special trip possible through Big Sky Honor Flight.
"It's unbelievable to be here to see this," he said. "It's a great privilege that they did this for us."
Montana Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, his wife, Mel, and members of his staff greeted the veterans and posed with anyone wanting a photo. In paying homage to the World War II veterans gathered before him, Baucus said it was also a time to remember those who could not be with them.
"You are representing all that's great about this country," Baucus said.
It was also a time, Baucus said, to remember the 240 Montana soldiers who are currently serving in Afghanistan.
His remarks were followed by a bugler playing taps.
Twenty staff members of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., were also at the Memorial to greet veterans.
Though World War II was a world-changing victory for the United States, not all of its heroes returned to ticker tape parades and welcome home celebrations.
Everett Bullis, an 89-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran from Hardin, will never forget.
"I just wanted to see this memorial because nothing was ever done for the World War II veterans," Bullis said. "When we got out of the service they sent you on your way. You got your discharge paper and you got on the train and were on your way. This means a lot to me. I never expected it."
One by one, each veteran marveled in the spectacular beauty of the monument, made even more stunning under the sunny, clear blue sky.
For the men and women who marched through the battlefields of Europe and landed on the bloody beaches of Normandy, this was one final military campaign.
They were up at the crack of dawn Saturday and walked and rolled in wheelchairs from charter buses without complaint and with no visible signs of fatigue from their two-day whirlwind tour of Washington, D.C.
"I would not have missed this for the world," said Wade Smith, an 86-year-old U. S. Navy veteran from Butte. "It's beautiful."
Big Sky Honor Flight is a nonprofit organization and is part of a national network aiming to recognize the courage and sacrifice of the "Greatest Generation."