WASHINGTON — It stands in testament to the more than 16 million who served in the armed forces of the U.S. during World War II, the more than 400,000 who died and the millions who supported the war effort from home.
On Saturday, 35 local veterans stood in front of it — the National World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. — as part of the first Covington Region Honor Flight. The veterans, who were accompanied on the trip by guardians, a medical staff and event organizers, boarded a tour bus at 2:30 a.m. bound for Pensacola, Fla. By 6:30 a.m., the group was en route by air to Atlanta, Ga., and from there, on to Washington, D.C. Shortly after noon, the group arrived at its destination and was awed by the site before them.
“It’s just amazing to look at,” said William “Snooks” Tillman of Opp. “I can’t believe we made it.”
It was not clear if Tillman meant he could not believe he made it home after the war, or if he meant that he made it to see the memorial.
Of those who attended, perhaps the most compelling story of survival was that of Andalusia’s Lee Sullivan, an infantryman with the 158th Infantry Combat Team.
Saturday was a special day on two fronts for the former furniture storeowner — it was his 90th birthday and a day he was able to visit the memorial.
“It was a lot to pack in on one birthday, but we did it,” said Charlee Dunn, Sullivan’s daughter. “It was a truly amazing day for both of us.”
Standing in front of the memorial, Sullivan told the story of how he was wounded during WWII. He began his story telling about how he served under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
“(MacArthur) was an amazing man,” Sullivan said. “I can remember watching him get into a car and the Japanese people bowing to him as he passed.”
It was so “amazing,” Sullivan said, that he had no hesitation the morning he and his fellow comrades followed MacArthur on a beachhead landing in the Philippines.
“I didn’t really have time to think,” he said. “We were shooting as soon as our feet hit the beach and the Japs were shooting back. They were hanging out of trees, everywhere.”
Sullivan and his men made it to a foxhole on the beach. It wasn’t long before he was wounded in a banzai attack.
“There were three of us in that foxhole,” he said. “I got pretty tore up.”
From the description of his wounds, “pretty tore up” was an understatement as Dunn explained her father spent the next 12-15 years off and on in a body cast.
“It was horrible, but he came home alive,” she said. “We’re thankful for that.”
Sullivan spent the majority of Saturday in a wheelchair, as he and the other veterans made their way around the memorial.
While there, the group was greeted by former U.S. Senator and one-time presidential hopeful Bob Dole, as well as Honor Flight Network founder Earl Morse.
Dole, a WWII veteran and former national chairman of the National WWII Memorial, took time to pose with local veterans, and Morse gave the group a guided tour of the site.
Participants later visited Arlington National Cemetery to observe the changing of the guard and to view the Iwo Jima and Air Force monuments before heading back to the airport for the return trip.
All in all, it was a day to remember for everyone who participated, said Tonitta Sauls, CRHF president.
“The trip went very smoothly,” Sauls said. “The veterans had the opportunity to meet Sen. Dole and Earl Morse, which was wonderful. They were free to walk through the WWII Mall and view the areas in which they were interested.”
Sauls said there will definitely be another trip planned in the future.
“Next time, we’re going to focus on the WWII vets who could not attend this trip and any Korean veteran would like to go,” she said. “It’s our goal to take every veteran to visit their respective memorial.”
Applications are available at the Andalusia and Opp Chambers of Commerce and the Covington County Commission, and fund-raising continues, she said.
“The next trip will be scheduled based upon the number of applications and how fast the funds are raised,” she said. “We could have another flight as early as this fall.”