Bud Stark leaned forward and touched the Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem on the base of the Marine Corps War Memorial.
When many look at that memorial or even think about the Battle of Iwo Jima, they can see Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize-winning photo.
That's not what Stark, of Norman, saw at all as he journeyed Wednesday with fellow veterans on the Oklahoma Honor Flights trip to the Washington area.
The 85-year-old left the sidewalk and entered the green grass. Just seeing the memorial wouldn't be enough.
“It touched my heart to touch the monument and talk to my old buddies,” Stark said. “I felt I was closer to them and could talk to them.”
Some estimate that 1,000 World War II veterans are dying each day. With that in mind, state Rep. Gary Banz, R-Midwest City, started the Oklahoma Honor Flights hub in 2009. The latest trip was the fifth, with 103 veterans traveling to visit the World War II Memorial.
As it was raining, they took a windshield tour, driving by the Lincoln and Korean War memorials and mentioned the Vietnam Memorial. They stopped at the Marine Corps War Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
Banz said 16 million responded to the call to serve in World War II. Current estimates identify fewer than 3 million remain. At best estimates, about 60,000 are living in Oklahoma, Banz said.
“It's important that we acknowledge each of them and honor their service and their sacrifice,” he said.
On Tuesday night, the veterans were recognized during a ceremony at Rose State College. At 4 a.m. Wednesday, they boarded buses. At 7 a.m., their flight departed Will Rogers World Airport, taking them closer to their memories of World War II.
He ‘just had to'
Stark grew up in Sherman, Texas, about 2 miles from his buddy, J.R. Sullivan.
The two teenage boys joined the service together.
“We grew up during the Depression,” Stark said. “J.R. never had a new pair of pants until he went into the Marine Corps. He was a lot of fun.”
They went through boot camp and advance training together and then it was off to war.
“J.R. was about 40 feet from me when he was killed at Iwo (Jima),” Stark said, his voice almost in a whisper. “I had to pay homage to J.R. and all the others around me that we lost. I just had to.
“I'm sure happy I made the trip, I know that.”
They never stopped
The Will Rogers quote, “We can't all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they go by,” was just inside the cover page of the program for the Oklahoma Honor Flights recognition ceremony.
In the time it took Tuesday night for slightly more than 100 World War II veterans to file into Rose State Performing Arts Theatre, the clapping never ceased, and the hundreds of family and friends never sat down.
The emotions continued to roll just like the waves on the beaches many of them never have forgotten.
At the playing of “Taps,” tears trickled under wire-framed glasses over wrinkles that represented trenches of time.
During the playing of the songs of each of the military branches, veterans stood, or if unable to do so, gestured accordingly. All proud, some tight-jawed, others smiling. One veteran gave a double-fist pump to the words “nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force.”
During the ceremony, a stage video screen showed a photo of two hands, one delivering a baton to the other.
The exchange zone in a relay race is an example Banz offers when talking about Oklahoma Honor Flights and how the generations of the past are placing the responsibility of defending this nation in the hands of those much younger.
This is done at top speed without breaking stride, Banz said.
As they entered the ceremony, the veterans were paired with students in ROTC and Civil Air Patrol.
The veterans were given a pocket-size copy of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights that they took the oath to “preserve, protect and defend.”
The young people were given an Oklahoma Honor Flights coin created to honor the veterans “as our heroes,” Banz said. The students and the veterans were asked to stand and face each other, if possible, and exchange these items.
A young red-haired man presented the commemorative coin to the man with thick white hair and received the pocket-size copy. Then the ROTC student gently patted the veteran on the back of his left shoulder while they looked at each other and smiled.
“Young people, these are your heroes,” Banz said. “Take the baton and honor them by pledging to preserve, protect and defend our Constitution and our way of life.”
The baton had been passed.