WASHINGTON -- As he stepped from a chartered bus and caught his first glimpse of the National World War II Memorial, 82-year-old Bill Lewis of Ennis began reliving memories and emotions that run "too deep to explain."
Six decades earlier, as a young first sergeant, he was in an Army rifle company battling through the islands of the Philippines. On Wednesday, Lewis was among 35 World War II veterans from Texas who were brought to Washington to see -- for the first time -- the elegant outdoor monument built in their honor four years ago.
The visit was sponsored by the Honor Flight Network, a voluntary organization founded in 2005 with the ambitious goal of trying to get every veteran from World War II to Washington to see the 7.4-acre plaza on the National Mall, midway between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
When it was dedicated in 2004, it was widely described as a much-belated tribute to those who have come to be known as the "greatest generation." The young men and women who endured that war are now in their 80s, often struggling with infirmities and declining health. They are dying at the rate of 1,200 a day.
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Many of those who made the trip from Texas -- the first Lone Star contingent sponsored by Honor Flight -- toured the oval-shaped plaza in wheelchairs or pushed themselves forward with the aid of walkers. But from the minute their flight touched down at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, they were treated as celebrities.
Airport fire trucks saluted the airliner with plumes from water cannons as ground crews waved tiny American flags. As the veterans and their escorts, known as "guardians," entered the terminal, a band struck up patriotic tunes. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Arlington, rushed to the airport from a vote on the House floor to greet the elderly VIPs from his congressional district.
"We're glad for your service for the country," Barton said. "We're glad you kept us free. God bless each and every one of you."
Passengers awaiting flights joined the reception, applauding the visitors as they walked past wearing distinctive baseball caps emblazoned with "World War II Veteran." Similar tributes awaited them at the memorial, where sun-baked tourists occasionally called out "thank you" or approached the veterans to shake their hands.
Margaret Thomas was in a wheelchair pushed by her son, Russell Thomas, the mayor of Ennis. Now 88, she was an Army nurse who helped care for President Franklin Roosevelt at Warm Springs, Ga. and sat near Roosevelt at a chapel the night before he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945.
She also tended to Earl Thomas, a young paratrooper who broke his leg in a training accident. They married before he shipped out to Europe and wrote each other day until he returned safely home to a victory parade in New York.
"Everybody was in that war," she said, recalling her service as a nurse while her husband was on the battlefront. "Thank goodness, I had that work to do. It helped keep me occupied."
Lewis, a former Dallas utility executive who preceded Russell Thomas as mayor of Ennis, struggled with his emotions after laying a wreath at one of the 56 granite pillars surrounding the plaza -- this one dedicated to Texas. Many of his experiences from the war are still too difficult to express in words, he said, explaining that "there are some places I can't go."
Of those who served with him, Lewis said he believes he is the only one left. "I've got so many friends who I wished could have been here," he said.
Online: Honor Flight Network, honorflight.org