WASHINGTON — As Robert Johnston, 90, stood at the World War II Memorial 67 years after serving in the Marines, he thought of his best friend who was killed at the Battle of Saipan. Johnston, a second lieutenant who earned a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts at Saipan and Iwo Jima, said being able to visit the memorial for the first time gave him a chance to reflect.
“It’s so good to be here and to think back about the people that didn’t make it, unfortunately,” said the Stoneham resident.
“We had almost 100 percent casualties,” he said. “If somebody wasn’t wounded, he was a lucky person. And I was a lucky person.”
On Sunday, nonprofit Honor Flight New England took 61 local World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials that honor them for their sacrifices. In anticipation of Memorial Day next week, the veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, reflected at the National World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Marine Corps War Memorial, and the Air Force Memorial.
“It’s been 70 years for some of us, and it brought back some memories,” said Johnston.
Honor Flight New England, a regional branch of the national Honor Flight Network, covers the transportation and food costs for day trips for the veterans.
“I can’t believe how much work they’ve done to put it all together, get all of us in wheelchairs,” said Johnston, who added that he’s made some new friends from Sunday’s trip. “It’s a pleasure to be with this group.”
Morris Morris, 88, of Revere, who made wisecracks during much of the trip, turned serious when he said he couldn’t get enough of the memorials and the camaraderie among the veterans.
“I couldn’t have had a better day in all my life. Believe you me, I had a wonderful time,” said Morris, who served as a corporal in military intelligence from 1946-1948. “The kids, when we went through the airport, saluted us, and I saluted them back because I think it’s an honor for us to be honored by them because they’re our future generation.”
According to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, the United States loses 642 World War II veterans every day. Massachusetts has 36,835 living veterans from the war, and Honor Flight New England is determined to thank them all for their service while there’s still time.
With about five flights a year since 2009 funded by donations and sponsors, more than 800 local veterans have made the trip. About 100,000 veterans have participated nationwide.
Joe Byron, the founder of the New England branch, said the satisfaction he gets from facilitating the trips is incomparable.
“They don’t expect that they would ever be able to come on a trip like this so it’s an honor,” he said.
Former senator Bob Dole, 89, who was wounded in the war, made an appearance with his wife, Elizabeth, at the World War II Memorial to meet the Honor Flight participants.
“It’s good to see these men and women,” he said. “You look at them and see their faces and the emotion and wiping their eyes. It’s probably the last great experience they’ll have.”
The popularity of the regional program, which made its 27th flight on Sunday, means an ever-growing waiting list of more than 100 veterans. Byron said that while the group is starting to accept applications from veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars, priority is given to those who served in World War II and terminally ill veterans from any war.
Dorothea Otis, 92, of Millis, a World War II nurse with a Purple Heart, made her first trip to the war’s memorial on Sunday with her husband, Raymond Otis, also a veteran.
“I’m impressed with it,” she said of the memorial’s granite pillars and fountain. “It’s ‘awesome,’ as the kids say.”
Byron said that the veterans sometimes don’t feel that they are worthy of the Honor Flight treatment.
“We hear this every trip: ‘We did what we had to do and the real heroes didn’t come home,’” he said. “It’s just so humbling to listen to their stories that some of them haven’t ever told, and they tell it for the first time . . . on this trip with their comrades.”
Morris said that making the trip with his fellow veterans gave him a feeling of unity he hadn’t felt in a long time.
“It feels like we’re all one family,” he said. “I mean that.”Christina Jedra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@ChristinaJedra.