WASHINGTON — A year ago in the midst of a federal government shutdown, Las Vegas veterans visiting the National World War II Memorial had to slip in through a barricade opening on a wet and gray day. The site largely was empty, its restrooms were locked and its fountains were dormant.
It was a different scene on Saturday. There was not a fence in sight, sunshine was emerging, the fountains were dancing, and dozens of volunteers and tourists applauded as 29 old-timers emerged from their bus and walked or were wheeled onto the monument plaza.
“I’m enjoying every bit of it,” said Glen Thompson, 94, of Henderson, whose memory was sparked by the 17-foot-tall granite pillars and the two triumphal arches erected in salute to the 16 million who served and the 400,000 who died.
Thompson had completed Army training three months earlier and was stationed in Cheyenne, Wyo., when officers interrupted church service on Dec. 7, 1941, and ordered all servicemen back to base.
“Everybody in the audience started clapping for us,” he said. “It is something I will never forget.” Thompson’s unit hurriedly was dispatched to the devastation at Pearl Harbor.
“I could see the damage,” he said. “They were putting up barbed wire on the beaches and evacuating the Japanese.” A local college was converted into a 2,000-bed hospital. Thompson remembered working in the hospital receiving office and six months later meeting the ships returning with the wounded from the Battle of Midway.
Thompson later traveled widely when he served as secretary to four-star Gen. Clark Ruffner, deputy chief of staff for the Pacific and then Army chief of staff later in the war.
So far 110 Southern Nevada veterans from World War II have traveled to the nation’s capital over three trips organized by a network that raises money and arranges “tours of honor” for the rapidly aging “Greatest Generation”
Saturday’s tour also included stops at Arlington National Cemetery, the monuments commemorating the Korean and Vietnam wars, and memorials to the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
Katherine Burt of Las Vegas, who enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps when she was 20 and living in Minneapolis, was to present a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Belinda Morse, chairwoman of Honor Flight Southern Nevada, said there are at least 50 more World War II veterans on a waiting list for future trips, as well as a growing number of Korean War veterans. She said the organization intended to keep putting the trips together as long as the community continues its support. A companion group puts together trips for Northern Nevada veterans.
“As long as we can raise the funds, we’ll come back,” Morse said.
About 9,940 World War II veterans are living in Nevada, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Nationwide the VA estimates 1.034 million veterans of the war are still alive, but they are dying at a rate of 555 each day.
At the memorial, the veterans were welcomed by Brig. Gen. Robert Herbert, assistant adjutant general in the Nevada Army National Guard and a senior policy adviser to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. Herbert distributed U.S. Senate “challenge coins” minted for Reid.
Richard G. Miller of Las Vegas was surrounded by a large group of family at the memorial who listened intently as he talked of his service. Growing up in Los Angeles, Miller got an “early start” on the war when he enlisted at 16. He was piloting a Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bomber on its way to attack Tokyo when he got word the war was over and had to turn back.
“Oh yeah, I felt relieved,” said Miller, now 89. “My best buddy growing up was a Japanese boy and I didn’t want to go over there and bomb them.”
Carl “Curly” Price, 88, who was a butcher in the Seabees and who spent 11 months in New Guinea during the war, said the greeting he received at the memorial “is the greatest thing I’ve had happen since I got out of the service.”
Price said he hopes that soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are as fondly remembered when they grow old.
“What I would like to do is give the next bunch that comes the same treatment as we’ve gotten,” Price said. “It would be great.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.