“I remember seeing that flag,” World War II veteran Leonard Thurman said as he looked at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va., for the first time.
He wasn’t there when it was raised by the Marines. He saw it later when the Naval Air Corps was stationed on the island.
“We were on Iwo Jima shortly after it was secured. The Seabees had gone in and prepared the runway that we had been bombing. There were Japanese coming out of the caves all over,” Thurman said. “We didn’t see them raise it (the flag), but the flag was flying and we went over to Iwo to that hill, just to see the flag flying.”
The veteran said seeing this memorial and the World War II memorials were the major highlights of his recent trip to Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas. On Oct. 9, Thurman, of Cleveland, joined more than 100 veterans from Southeast Tennessee in an HonorAir Knoxville trip to Washington, D.C., and Arlington.
“There were 49 of us World War II guys on the plane,” Thurman said.
Korean War veterans Joe Moats of Etowah and Billy Stewart of Athens were also a part of the trip.
Tom Thomas had made the local veterans aware of the free opportunity to see the memorials, and accompanied them as a guardian.
The partial government shutdown had threatened the trip’s
cancellation just two days before its start. However, it did not keep the veterans from being able to see the memorials. The veterans were accompanied by U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann for part of the time. Thurman said there were National Park Service personnel at the memorials, but no one asked them to leave.
“The gates were pushed back at the time. I didn’t see who did that,” Thurman said.
Thomas said he moved some barriers out of the way.
The trip was the first time Thurman had been to the nation’s capital.
“I just wanted to see the World War II memorial, mostly. The others were very impressive,” Thurman said.
He said looking at the memorial “brought back a lot of memories of guys you knew.”
During World War II, Thurman served as part of the 12-man crew for a PB4Y-2 Privateer.
“I was an aviation radioman,” Thurman said. “We didn’t obviously go on those island until they were secure, but we were dropping bombs on some of them before.”
Midway, Wake, Tinian and Iwo Jima were among the islands Thurman was on during the war. Everyone from his plane survived the war.
“It was 1943 when I went into the service,” the 87-year-old said.
Thurman joined the Naval Air Corps at the age of 17. He said his parents signed off on him joining under the standard age of 18.
Thurman said he spent 21 weeks attending radio school and learning the codes that would be used. He said he still remembers some of the codes that he had worked with.
The World War II memorial in Washington features etchings of the faces of some of the veterans. Thomas said on a previous tour a veteran had seen his own face on the memorial.
Thurman didn’t see his face on the memorial. But, it was an emotional time.
“I guess seeing the World War II memorial was the most emotional, because it was the war I was in,” Thurman said.
The veterans traveled around the city in buses. A tour guide on board pointed out sights along the way.
The group also visited the Korean and Vietnam war memorials, and the Air Force memorial. They visited Arlington National Cemetery and watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“It was a long day, but I didn’t realize it. I got through it fine,” Thurman said.
On the return flight, HonorAir Knoxville had a mail call for the veterans. The group had connected with family members to have families and friends write letters for the veterans. For servicemen, mail call is a special time.
A warm welcome greeted the veterans in Knoxville on their return.
“There were people thanking you for you service. It was an emotional time. All of those people greeting you, you would have thought you had done something important,” Thurman said.
He said it seemed like 2,000 people had come out.
Thomas said there were people lining the concourse to the doors cheering and thanking the veterans. There was even a band playing.
“It was well done,” Thurman said.
The veteran said he was surprised that so many people would come out at 9:45 p.m.
“I know it must have been emotional for Leonard, but it was emotional for me. I was just honored to be a part of the whole thing,” Thomas said. “I was thanking people for coming out to support the veterans and they were saying ‘I wouldn’t miss this for the world.’”
Thurman said he wanted more veterans to know about the free opportunity through HonorAir Knoxville to see the veteran memorials.