Elizabeth's Blog: A promise to remember

At Arlington National Cemetery, the veterans witnessed the somber changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Many of the veterans watched from wheelchairs, but without hesitation even they rose shakily from their chairs and stood proudly.
At Arlington National Cemetery, the veterans witnessed the somber changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Many of the veterans watched from wheelchairs, but without hesitation even they rose shakily from their chairs and stood proudly.

WASHINGTON, DC (WLOX) - I'll be seeing you by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal was a song written in 1938 for the musical Right This Way.  But the song didn't gain true notoriety until the 1940s, when its melancholy lyrics came to represent families and lovers torn apart by the outbreak of World War II.

I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places/ That this heart of mine embraces, all day through.

The song is a promise that even though time and trials may pass, that love and remembrance will remain.  Listening to someone like Bing Crosby croon the words into the night like smoke from the end of a cigarette, a scene comes to mind like something out of an old movie. A soldier is holding tight to his girl while they dance away their last night together.  The young hero is dressed handsomely in his new khaki uniform, starched and ironed to look as fresh and unscathed as his youth.  When he returns that uniform will fit a little differently, less like a boy dressing up and more like a man.

In that small café, the park across the way/ The children's carousel, the chestnut trees, the wishing well.

The girl clings to her soldier, her arms wrapped tightly around his shoulders.  Her dress brushes across her bare legs, where she has drawn on the stylish line that would be her stockings, had silk not been sacrificed for the good of the war effort. Although this scene is imagined, a similar story played out for many in the greatest generation.  They set aside their youth, in order to hold up the world.  More than half a century later, the greatest generation is dying out. However, groups like the Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight are making sure that the stories and legacies of World War II veterans are always remembered, and always honored.

I'll be seeing you in every lovely summer's day/ In everything that's light and gay/ I'll always think of you that way.

Several times each year, the Honor Flight carries veterans to Washington DC for one day to visit the monuments and memorials and to pay homage to those who have gone before.  Along the way, veterans are surprised with visits and tributes that often overwhelm them. The latest installment of the Honor Flight carried its largest group of veterans yet: 94 men and women with 94 incredible stories to tell.

There was 92 years young Chester Yates who grew up in West Virginia.  A spry, thin man with a permanent grin, Yates joined the Navy looking for a better career than what waited him in the cornfields. After boot camp, he was assigned to a convoy that escorted Allied ships through the North Atlantic. At 19 years old Yates was staring down German submarines with orders to shoot on sight.  That was six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the US's official entry into the war.

"You didn't think about it. When you're young, you think you're indestructible," said Yates.

Then there was Marian Powers, a stylish 89-year-old with a love of skydiving.  At the age of 20, Powers signed up for the Navy WAVES, which stood for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. Powers had been a sewing machine operator at a dress factory in southern Illinois.  With that experience, she was assigned to be a parachute rigger.  She was responsible for sewing, repairing and packing the chutes for the troops.

"We had machines with four needles to fix where the strap lines went through," recalled Powers.  "The casing and bags used a different machine which was a machine you had to stand up to operate."

Powers quickly rose through the ranks and became the first female Chief parachute rigger in the Navy.

There was also the ever-quiet Charlie Booker, who was stationed in Okinawa.  There he drove a crash bus. When planes crashed on the island, Booker was first on scene to clean up.  When the war was over, he was offered a short trip home via plane.  He understandably declined and took a boat, which took several extra weeks of traveling. The 87-year-old did not step foot on a plane until his trip on the Honor Flight.

Boarding the plane to DC, there was a buzz of excitement and celebration.  Veterans mingled and talked endlessly, each one eager to share where they were when the war began or ended, and what they were doing during the time in between. The flight Guardians, or veteran escorts, listened in awe.  Many times they gathered in a semi-circle around a veteran like children hearing a bedtime story. However, when the flight landed, it was the veterans' turn to be awed.

Inside the airport a row of flags had been mounted.  Members of the Honor Flight organization greeted them as they walked out.  One especially excited man told each veteran as they passed, "Thanks for kicking their asses!" with such vibrato and triumph that he could be heard well above a clapping crowd.

Music was also played, and patriotic hymns and songs floated above a jubilant crowd that stopped and gathered to shake the heroes' hands. When former Speaker of the House and former presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich heard there was an honor flight arriving, he risked missing his own flight out to stop and personally welcome the Mississippi veterans with his wife.

Then came the World War II memorial.  This structure is located at the helm of the reflection pool on the Mall, sitting in a bowl between the Lincoln and Washington monuments. It's a vast oval set around a pool with gushing fountains on either end.  Fifty pillars line the outside, each bearing the name of a state.  Inscriptions and busts of war scenes are carved into the structure all the way around.  At the north and south ends, there are eagles bearing wreaths of peace and victory to guard the entrances.

Senator Roger Wicker and Congressman Steven Palazzo led the veterans on a procession around the monument as a bagpiper playing battle hymns announced their arrival.

Marion Ritchie, the only other female veteran on the trip, says she was overwhelmed by the attention. Ritchie grew up in California.  In her early 20s, she wanted to help the war effort and even wrote a letter to the Navy asking if there were any jobs for young women.

"At that time, they wrote back and said, 'No,'" laughed Ritchie.  "But, then it did happen."

Soon after, the Navy WAVES were formed and Ritchie volunteered during her lunch break at work.

"When I got back I told my friend there what I had done, and she said 'What in the hell did you do that for?'" said Ritchie.  "I was proud of what I did."

While walking around touring the monument, Ritchie was stopped by strangers who wanted to thank her for her service, and wanted to hear her story.

"It was overwhelming," she said tearfully.

It wasn't just strangers who wanted to know and understand the veterans' stories. Trip Guardian Michelle Lady escorted her own grandfather, Milford Lady.  As they walked around the monument, Michelle would read the inscriptions out loud.

"I didn't really know how much that would mean to him. Just to watch him and say, ' Oh yes, I remember that.' It was just really moving," said Michelle.

For four and a half years, Lady served in the Merchant Marines.  He was responsible for providing the vital supplies needed for troops to win the war.

"That was a very important job at the time, because we had two wars going: one in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific, and we had to get all the ammunition, food, clothing, everything," said the veteran. Lady says he had to stay in the Merchant Marines for an extra six months after the war, because they couldn't go home until they had gotten rid of all their cargo.  It took them half a year to do so.

"It was just so neat because I got to understand really what it was like to be in the service and what it was for him growing up," said Michelle.

The dedication continued at Arlington National Cemetery as veterans witnessed the somber changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Serving in the Honor Guard is considered one of the most prestigious positions among military members.  To be chosen, a soldier must go through an extensive vetting and training process. Their uniforms are pristine. Their strides are exact. Their pride becomes tangible.

At this stop, a few of the veterans participated in a wreath laying ceremony. During this ceremony, civilians are asked to hold their hands over their heart, and military members are asked to salute. Many of the veterans watched from wheelchairs, but without hesitation even they rose shakily from their chairs, stood up under the weight that time had pushed on their shoulders and held their backs tall and proud with a sharp salute. When taps ended and the guard resumed his 21 steps back and forth in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, these veterans again folded back to their seats.  Tears revealed other more painful stories lurking behind their smiles.

Back at the airport for the return home, another surprise awaited the veterans.  A "big band" style quartet and swing dancers arrived to send off the veterans. Ritchie was swept up by one of these dancers as he led her in a sort of two-step.  A few of the men quickly grabbed the young women dancers who were dressed like a dames from the 1940s.

Once again we see our soldier holding tight to his dance partner. This time, his shuffle is a little slower.  Gone are the physical stars and stripes, but the proud stance of the uniform remains. The veterans stopped dancing as the gates opened to board the plane, and the quartet struck up I'll be seeing you.

I'll see you in the morning sun, and when the night is new.

Instead of a promise to love through war, the band now played this song as a promise to remember through time. According to the Honor Flight around 1,000 World War II veterans die each day.  Programs like the Honor Flight are dedicated to preserving the legacy of the greatest generation, and promise to remember them always.

"It is vitally important, especially for our young people, that they know what these men and women did for our country," said Wayne Lennep of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight. "We're free because of these people."

While the day of celebration had begun to end and the last veteran left to board the plane home, the quartet played out the last few chords of the song.  In this way, they sealed their promise that respect and honor will remain.

I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing you.

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