East Texas WWII veterans travel to Washington D.C.

By Taylor Hemness - bio | email

It's not often that you see the parking lot of Brookshire's on Rice Road in Tyler packed at 5AM.  But on this dark October morning, 37 WWII veterans from across East Texas are signing in, dropping off luggage, and climbing on the bus. And the company that's making it all possible wouldn't have it any other way.

"We don't want to forget about them, and what they went through," said Mark Brookshire. "And Brookshire's is very glad to take them on the trip and hear their stories. I'm sure it'll be just wonderful."

With a police and motorcycle escort, the bus pulls out on the first leg of the trip, heading for the interstate, and for Dallas.

As the bus gets in to the Metroplex, and the sun finally comes up, we get our first chance to hear from the veterans why this trip is so special.

"I'm from Pacific, Tommy over here was in the European Theater," said Lee Williamson, 85, an army veteran from Tyler. "There's a kindred you know. There's a lot of commonalities."

After a quick unload at the airport, the veterans take to the skies for the trip to Washington, but it's what happened when they walk off the plane that was the biggest surprise of the trip.

A crowd of strangers was waiting to welcome them with cheers, and applause.

"I can't imagine the reception that we received here," said Robert Boyer, 87, an army veteran from Whitehouse. "And they were genuinely applauding, they weren't just going through the motions. They were genuinely happy to see us."

From the airport in Washington, the vets traveled straight to the Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial. It brought back tough memories for former marine Dave Whatley of Longview.

"We were floating reserve waiting to go in for that, and they didn't need us," said Whatley, 86. "So they sent us to Guam to replace all those boys that were killed on Iwo Jima."

The Marine Memorial wasn't the only solemn stop on day one. The veterans next drove over to Arlington National Cemetery, to watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

One of the vets said that he's proud that so many people were there just to see the young soldiers in action.

"To see this many people...eight bus loads here today, watching this, it makes my heart go pump, pump, pump," said Vernon Dunn, 87, a navy veteran from Tyler.

After leaving Arlington, the veterans were finally able to relax, and sit down at the hotel for dinner. Stories and laughs were shared, and the guys even got an old-fashioned mail call from back home.

Brookshire's passed out letters from East Texas students, several for each veteran. And the notes brought some of the men to tears.

"I've got a box full of 'em here, look at 'em," said an emotional Bob Wood, 87, and a navy vet from Tyler. "And some of them are in envelopes. I've got to go up now and read them. I can't go to sleep until I read them."

Day two started early as well, with a trip to the U.S. Capitol. The vets got a welcome from Texas Senator John Cornyn, and a tour with Congressman Louie Gohmert.

Gohmert took the group all over the Capitol, including stops on the floor of both the House of Representatives, and the Senate.

"He was great," said Otis Bryan, 85, a navy vet from Overton. "And he went through it, and kept our interest all the time."

"Having more information about the history of the representatives and the capitol in general, it meant more to me to visit it this time," said Charlie Holmen, 83, a navy veteran from Tyler.

But finally, the trip wrapped up at the spot the veterans were looking forward to the most--The WWII Memorial. For two hours, the men were able to walk around the area, and the memories came roaring back.

"I went to many islands, to get them secured, and then we actually went into Okinawa to the battle," said Grady Phillips, 86, a navy veteran from Tyler.

"We worked 10 hours a day, heavy lifting," said J.W. Gresham, 90, an army veteran from Tyler, and former POW.

"The allied forces, have joined in to offer their courage and wisdom and defeating the tyranny of the world that existed at the time," said Vergil Rodgers, 87, an army veteran from Tyler.

So after seeing the memorial built in their name, the veterans head back to East Texas. And Washington says thank you to 37 members of the "greatest generation."

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