WASHINGTON, D.C. - As they slowly made their way around the World War II Memorial's granite pillars in wheelchairs pushed by relatives, the elderly Northeast Ohio veterans didn't expect to be treated as part of the exhibit.
But a steady stream of tourists approached them to thank them for their role in fighting in World War II.
"It overwhelms me, because I don't feel that I did that much," said 90-year-old Duane Rininger of Cuyahoga Falls, one of 25 Northeast Ohio veterans who participated Wednesday in a day-long "honor flight" program to visit a selection of the nation's war memorials around Washington, D.C.
"I just did what I had to do," Rininger said of his World War II stint on a U.S. Navy PT boat. Like many veterans on the trip, Rininger wore a ball cap that described his military service.
The Cleveland "honor flight" program, now in its seventh year, brings veterans like Rininger to the World War II Memorial as well as memorials honoring the Vietnam and Korean wars, the U.S. Air Force and the Marine Corps.
The day usually concludes with a guard changing ceremony at Arlington National Ceremony, according to Joe Benedict of Old Brooklyn, who heads the Cleveland program.
The veterans selected for the trip are accompanied by "guardians," often relatives who push their wheelchairs and assist them with other needs. The guardians pay their own trip expenses while the veterans' costs are paid through donations, often from veterans' groups.
World War II veterans who apply to participate in the program are bumped to the top of its wait list because of their advancing age and dwindling numbers. Benedict notes that many of them were already more than 80 years old when the World War II Memorial opened in 2004.
Wednesday's "honor flight" was the first from Northeast Ohio to be paid for by a corporate donor, Ford Motor Co. Ford has sponsored similar trips from other cities in the past two years.
The company currently employs more than 7,000 veterans, and Henry Ford himself organized a caravan of 50 Model Ts more than 90 years ago to transport disabled veterans to a convention in San Francisco, according to Ford spokesman Judd Templin.
"We have been doing these things for a long time," said Templin.
In addition to being greeted by other tourists at the memorial, Ohio politicians including U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, and House of Representatives members Marcy Kaptur and Dave Joyce paid their respects.
Kaptur, who authored the bill that created the World War II Memorial, told them she hopes it will expand to include more exhibits on the war, as well as a flame or light beam.
"They are hustling – you have to keep your sense of humor," 89-year-old Erick Rohde of Lakewood said of the politicians, after shaking Portman's hand. During World War II, the Navy veteran participated in five invasions, including the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
He described the memorial as "beautiful."
"It's as nice an edifice as could be manufactured to honor the veterans," said Rohde.
Tom Malaney Jr., 90, of Sagamore Hills, said he heard about the trip from his daughter, who arranged for him to go. During his days as a U.S. Marine in World War II, he participated in the invasions of Iwo Jima, Kwajalein Atoll, Tinaian and Saipan.
"Can you imagine going out and digging a hole and living in it?" said Malaney, a retired trucking company salesman. "Today, if I did that, I wouldn't last one hour. We had to do it for weeks and weeks. The only water we had was put in our canteens, so we couldn't even wash ourselves."
Paul Fine, an 83-year-old Korean War veteran from Mayfield Heights, heard about the trip from friends. The former second-class petty officer on the USS Baltimore and USS Columbus thought spending the day with fellow veterans visiting the war memorials would help him "get in touch with the values I served for in the Navy for those four years."
"We tend to take things for granted," said Fine, who worked in the produce and home improvement industries after his military service. "It is a privilege to have these values: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the Bill of Rights They are really not an entitlement. These are the values I treasure."Northeast Ohio veterans are treated as part of history at World War II Memorial »