Herbert St. Romain thought he would never get to see the national memorial honoring him and other veterans who served in World War II.
But one recent morning, the 95-year-old from Alexandria, La., gazed around the National WWII Memorial as he was wheeled past 17-foot pillars honoring veterans from each state.
He stopped at the granite pillar with Louisiana blazoned across it.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see this,” said St. Romain after pointing to the pillar. “It feels impossible.”
St. Romain made the journey to Washington, D.C., at the end of June on a mission to visit the memorial honoring the 16 million who served in the U.S. armed forces. He was in the Louisiana Army National Guard in 1939 and later on active duty in the European Theater during WWII.
His comrades in that National Guard unit have all since died.
“I’m the only one left of that group,” St. Romain said.
It’s been nearly 60 years since St. Romain visited the nation’s capital. Most veteran memorials hadn’t yet been built. He wanted to return to see the WWII memorial, which opened in 2004 and is steps from the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
St. Romain’s weekend trip was sponsored by Honor Flight, a group dedicated to helping veterans get to Washington to see the national monuments honoring their service.
There were 47 veterans on this recent trip, including some who served during WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Three of them are terminally ill.
“For some of them, it’s their dying wish,” said Jane Julian, who lives in Shreveport, La., and is the national hub director for Honor Flight. “It’s the least we can do for what they did for us. Not just WWII (veterans), our Korean and Vietnam also. The program was developed because our veterans need to see how much America appreciates what they did.”
St. Romain was the oldest veteran on the trip and the only one from Louisiana, which is just starting an Honor Flight chapter in Baton Rouge.
“Just think about how many years he waited to see the memorial that was built to honor the sacrifices he made in WWII,’’ said Julian, who also runs the group’s Lone Eagle program, which helps veterans who don’t live near an Honor Flight chapter.
St. Romain’s son, Paul, himself an Air Force veteran, maneuvered his father’s wheelchair through the WWII Memorial.
St. Romain and other veterans were greeted first by the Allied Airmen’s Preservation Society MidAtlantic District, a “living history’’ group wearing WWII-era military uniforms and sitting on a 1943 Willys Jeep.
“It really takes them back. It makes them 18 or 19 or 20 years old again,” said Dave Nichols, a member of the volunteer re-enactment group. ‘’It’s a part of their experience — to take a them back in time.”
And it did. St. Romain held court with the group, reminiscing, telling war stories and joking. He talked about his tours in Europe, including being stationed in England and Belgium. St. Romain, who worked as a clerk in a hospital group, was there when medics treated soldiers from D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.
In 2005, St. Romain joined his son, Paul, on a family trip to Belgium where they visited the site where he was once stationed.
But the trip to see the veteran memorials was different.
“He was just delighted to see how those memorials were set up. They’re very impressive,’’ said Paul St. Romain, 73, who lives in Lecompte, a small town outside of Alexandria. “He thought it was the proper acknowledgement without going overboard.”
Nichols, also chairman of the board of directors for Honor Flight, said the group’s trip to Washington can be emotional for WWII veterans who are “thinning out very rapidly.”
“A lot of these WWII (veterans) weren’t going to make it to D.C.,” said Nichols, an Air Force veteran. “But now we’re bringing them from all over the country.”
‘’We feel they should be honored at their memorials,” he said.
At a few points during the visit, Herbert St. Romain was quiet. His eyes welled up.
“He was thinking about some of his buddies, some of the fellows who just aren’t here, the fellows back home who passed away and never got to see those acknowledgements,” Paul St. Romain said later.
For St. Romain, who spent nearly 30 years as an Alexandria fireman after returning from the war, the possibility of visiting the memorial was exciting from day one.
He was “very excited about the prospect of going to see the memorial and possibly seeing other veterans,” his son said.
The visit to the memorials even included a police escort for the chartered bus.
Other stops included the Lincoln Memorial, Korean Memorial, Vietnam Wall, Arlington National Cemetery, the Navy Memorial, Iwo Jima Memorial and Air Force Memorial.
But first stop was the WWII Memorial, which includes pillars, a water foundation and a Freedom Wall, covered with gold stars to honor the 400,000 Americans who died.
“It’s truly great to see the monument and how well it’s done – as a tribute to those people, the men and women of WWII,” Paul St. Romain said as he stood by the Louisiana pillar. “Even in my generation, people didn’t fully appreciate the impact and the sacrifices that the WWII generation made.”
Back in Louisiana, Paul St. Romain said Wednesday his father still wears the light-blue Honor Fight T-shirt he wore on the visit to the memorials.
For Herbert St. Romain, the mission is accomplished.
“He had never expected to go back to Washington, certainly at his age and certainly had not expected to see those memorials,” said Paul St. Romain. “So (the trip) kind of just fell out of the sky for him as far as he’s concerned.”
Deborah Barfield Berry