WASHINGTON — The old men sporting ranking stripes and infantry hats at the National World War II memorial Friday were no ordinary tourists. They were World War II veterans from American Legion Post 245 in State College, Pa., on personal business.
Thomas Marro, 89, a former staff sergeant in the 6th Infantry Division who served from 1941-1947, walked across the hot stone memorial plaza down to the center pool and tossed a handful of his brother George's ashes across the water. Later, he kissed a pillar of the memorial.
"I remember all the great guys who fought with me and died," Marro said.
George Marro served as a seaman first class in the Navy from 1942 to 1944, Marro said, recalling how they would correspond to try to figure out each other's location. They ended up meeting twice in the Philippines. Marro explained that his brother was cremated and buried in Denver several years ago, but that he thought it the right thing to bring part of him to the memorial.
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Other veterans also noted the bittersweet emotions surrounding the memorial.
"It's sort of nice that I got to see it," said Bob Edwards, 84, who served from 1943 to 1946 with amphibious tractors in the Pacific. "But there's sadness in my heart. While we were over there in the Pacific, our battalion experienced 93 percent casualties."
The WWII memorial, across from the Washington monument, has been open to the public since 2004. The memorial features a circle of pillars with a wreath for each state, enclosing a collection of pools and fountains that, on a humid late spring day, smelled a little of chlorine.
The memorial enjoyed considerable traffic Friday, but the ability of the veterans to move around freely was limited because of fatigue brought on by the four-hour trip from home. Many stayed by the entrance, overlooking the structure.
For all of the veterans, the trip was a reminder of their service to the United States, which many of them still hold strong feelings about.
"World War II was something we had to do, and we did a damn good job of it," said Duane O. Callahan, 88, a lieutenant colonel in the 386th Bomb Group who served from 1940 to 1961. "We blew the hell out of the Germans."
Callahan flew 72 missions as pilot of a B-26 bomber, affectionately called "Good Buddy," or alternatively, "The Widowmaker." Military service has become a tradition in his family as well; his son was in the Army.
"My first thought was I want my boy to see it," Callahan said of the trip to the memorial. "He's a Vietnam veteran."
Although there were seats available for purchase on the bus ride from State College, the veterans made the trip for free, thanks to generous donations from other Post 245 members.
"We work with a lot of the veterans' homes, in addition to helping local veterans," said Carl Lauck, 76, who served as a Marine in the Korean War from 1951-1953. Lauck, the adjutant of Post 245, organized the veterans' trip.
According to Lauck, Post 245 has 855 Class A members -- members who have served at least one day of active U.S. military duty during wartime -- including about 80 World War II veterans. However, many members' health risks were too great to make the four-hour drive, and 14 veterans ended up making the journey.
"It's just outstanding," Lauck said of the memorial. "It makes you think back to brothers or fathers or people you've lost."
Few were optimistic about the present.
"We're in another kind of battle right now," Callahan said, referring to the recession. "I hope good old America survives it, but it's not looking too good right now."