WASHINGTON — The barricades were slipped open at the World War II Memorial on Saturday for 35 Southern Nevada veterans getting the chance to tour the monument to their service seven decades ago.
Otherwise closed during the government shutdown, the site was opened to the Nevadans and other special tours for veterans under a National Park Service permit that allowed entry “for First Amendment activities.”
The fountain in the memorial plaza was shut off. The restrooms were locked and so was a temporary porta-potty but tour leaders were given its combination after they promised to secure it when they departed. The sky was gray and spitting for the hourlong stay, and some of the poncho-clad visitors were advised to ride in wheelchairs rather than risk rain-slick footing.
But to borrow the military acronym, the snafu of bureaucracy was hardly an issue for the old-timers, and the sun could just as well have been beaming judging from their reactions as they walked among the monument’s pillars and the triumphal arches.
Kilroy was here, and now they were, too
“I think it’s wonderful. It’s good to be remembered,” said Olaf Bernard, 91, who fought in Italy and France.
The trip was organized by Honor Flight Southern Nevada, part of a national network that sponsors “tours of honor” for aging World War II veterans that also includes stops at Arlington National Cemetery, the monuments commemorating the Korean and Vietnam wars and memorials to the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
Belinda Morse, chairwoman of Honor Flight Southern Nevada, said there already is a waiting list for the next tour in September. The 2010 census counted 16,000 World War II veterans living in Nevada, she said.
According to the Veterans Administration, about 1.2 million World War II veterans remain of the 16 million who served, and they are dying at a rate of just over 600 a day.
Entering the memorial on Saturday, Richard Schorr, a Las Vegan who served in the U.S. occupation Army of Japan at the end of the war, said many comrades “are on the hairy edge, and that’s so sad.”
Reps. Joe Heck, R-Nev., and Steven Horsford, D-Nev., greeted the visitors. Bob Herbert, a senior adviser to Sen. Harry Reid and deputy adjutant general in the Nevada Army National Guard, distributed U.S. Senate challenge coins with Reid’s name engraved on the back.
“It’s important that they have the opportunity to see their memorial,” Horsford said of the Nevadans. “This is what they fought for.”
For some of the veterans, the journey to Washington was as rewarding as their arrival. There were a lot of stories swapped on the flight East and during meals together, they said.
“We’ve solved the war many, many times in just the last night and yesterday,” said Bill Steinbaugh, 88, who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine. “And we have all the problems solved of Congress and everything, if they would just listen to us.”
Heck, a colonel in the Army Reserve who served a tour of duty in Iraq, described “a venting process” when old soldiers gather, whether it is at American Legion events or elsewhere.
“A lot of World War II veterans don’t like to talk about their service still, but when they are with veterans of the same generation, they will open up and it’s very cathartic for them,” he said.
As small groups gathered to chat on Saturday, they reminisced. For some, not so much about the war but about life when they were younger.
Herman Tartazky, 86, a Navy veteran who served in the Philippines, and his cousin Manuel Zenick, a Navy veteran who is 87, grew up in Brooklyn as big baseball fans.
“I even had Babe Ruth’s autograph and I lost it!” Tartazky said. “I got his autograph right outside Ebbets Field and I lost the damn thing.”
“And they broke our heart when they moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles,” Zenick said.
The New York Giants moving to San Francisco? No so much.
“I hated the Giants, they were the enemy,” Zenick said. “The Giants were worse than the Japanese.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.