An experience one veteran will remember for the rest of his life
By the time Charlie May got home to Huntley from his first visit to the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., late Wednesday, the proud father, grandfather and Pearl Harbor survivor just wanted his pillow.
But still ringing in his ears were the sights and sounds of almost 67 years ago.
And running through his head were the thank yous, cheers and hoopla that had marked the veteran's first trip to the long-sought memorial honoring his generation's darkest days.
Still replaying days later was the haunting vision of 4,000 stars etched into the memorial's wall, each representing 100 casualties of the war, reflecting into the pool of water below, a poignant and overwhelming reminder, Charlie said, of the more than 400,000 who did not make it home.
Already a grateful survivor of the "Day of Infamy," Charlie said his journey on Chicago's inaugural Honor Flight transporting him and 59 other World War II veterans to the memorial Wednesday was an overwhelming experience to savor.
"It was just absolutely amazing," Charlie said. "I will remember this for the rest of my life."
The flights, begun by a retired Air Force pilot, are aimed at making sure the veterans, most in their 80s and 90s, get to visit the oft-delayed memorial before it's too late. It's free for World War II veterans, who get meals and drinks on the one-day turnaround trip, with the terminally ill and disabled getting preferential treatment.
By day's end, it was pretty clear they all got very special treatment, Charlie said. He urged all World War II veterans to sign up to go. Just as they were comrades in arms so many decades ago, they were linked again by the special shared journey.
Making it even more treasured, he said, was having one of his daughters, Janis Denman of Hampshire, accompany him on the trip to provide a helping hand for many of the vets.
Knowing many others never returned from battle to enjoy Father's Day with their children and grandchildren hit even harder on the journey home when each of the veterans enjoyed "mail call," receiving packet of letters from loved ones meant just for them on the plane.
"The tears just ran down my face," Charlie said of the heartfelt notes from his children, grandchildren and others.
He wasn't the only one, said Janis, who was still emotional two days later, noting there were many tears shed by veterans touched not only by magnitude of the memorial visit but by the reaction of other visitors.
As they realized they were among World War II veterans, children and adults cheered, clapped and yelled. Some stopped to shake their hands and offer thanks. As she and her father stopped at the Pearl Harbor dedication, several families came up to thank Charlie, who was wearing his Pearl Harbor survivor cap. Many wanted to take his picture.
"It was something," Janis said. "One thing made me cry and then another thing made me cry. I consider myself very lucky. I'm glad other people got to see the dad that I know. He's just the most amazing, peaceful man … and what a role model for my kids."
Make that a role model for us all.
When Charlie and the other veterans returned home to Midway Airport, they were surprised to find a similar, even larger welcoming scene as crowds of strangers stopped to cheer, bands played and an array of military, Color Guard, Boy Scouts and passing Americans welcomed the vets home in style.
"When he walked in the door, he was still just so in awe," wife Frances said of Charlie's return to their Huntley home 22 hours after his journey began.
"He was just amazed by the whole experience," Frances said. "His heart was just full … and he could hardly talk without tears in his eyes. Even after all these years, it meant so much to the men to see all these people there for them."
Just as they were there for us.