It was a trip over 70 years in the making.
Two weekends ago, World War II veteran William Berger and his Vietnam veteran son Bobby got to go to Washington DC to see the memorials and other monuments that they proudly served for. The trip was created and planned shortly after their stories appeared in past editions of the Gonzales Inquirer, and the newspaper and area citizens chipped in to help send the two veterans to Washington DC for the weekend. While there, they visited the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and a Smithsonian Flight Museum where they got to see the Enola Gay, a space shuttle and other World War II planes and spacecraft.
It was an experience they will never forget.
“I don’t think words can express what the trip meant to us,” said William Berger, who served as a tail gunner on a B-17 bomber over Germany during World War II. “This trip and experience could not have been any better, and I didn’t want to come home because it was so inspiring to actually see in person.
“It was the trip of a lifetime.”
His son Bobby, who served on an aircraft carrier in Vietnam, agreed.
“I thought the whole trip was amazing,” Bobby added. “I was blown away by everything we saw and was completely overwhelmed by it. But this trip was really about Dad, and it was truly amazing to see how he took things in and how people responded to seeing him and thanking him for his service.”
The Bergers arrived in Washington on Friday afternoon. On Saturday morning they were picked up by guide Stephanie Fitzwater-Arduini, the director of education and marketing at the Museum of the American Civil War in Richmond, Va.
The first stop was the World War II Memorial, and both William and Bobby were impressed by the site.
“I thought it was amazing,” Bobby said. “The size and scope of the memorial was amazing. Whoever designed that was a genius.”
“I was so impressed by the size of it,” William Berger said. “TV does not do any of the monuments in Washington justice. They are so much more impressive in person.”
William Berger said one of the more emotional moments of their weekend trip was being able to find out what really happened to one of his high school buddies who died in France during the war.
“His name was Henry Lassmann, and we were great friends,” Berger said. “I had heard he died sometime in the Omaha Beach landings, but never knew. While we were at the World War II Memorial, Stephanie looked up his name and we found out he died in July 1944. He is buried there, and now he rests in France.”
“It was very emotional to see how everyone reacted to Mr. Berger,” Stephanie said. “From the time we first got there, I knew it was going to be special. When the national park worker saw Mr. Berger’s World War II veteran hat, he walked right up to him and said, ‘Welcome to Your Memorial.’
“And then it hit me that this was for him and for all those veterans.”
The veterans were then squired to the Vietnam Memorial, and on the way numerous people stopped to thank William for his service and talked to him about relatives they had who fought in the war or who had died. It was a cathartic moment for both William and Bobby.
“I was moved by all the people who came over to talk to Dad, or thank him, or just shake his hand,” Bobby said. “I was really happy for him, and proud that everyone recognized him for his service.”
“Bobby was awesome taking his dad around,” Stephanie said. “When we got to the Vietnam Memorial I asked Bobby why he wasn’t wearing his Vietnam veteran hat. He said he didn’t wear it because this trip was ‘all about Dad.’ That really touched me.”
At the Vietnam Memorial, Bobby was able to find the name of one of his classmates on the wall who died in Vietnam. For both men, the two memorials stirred echoes of memories long forgotten.
The group then crossed over to the Lincoln Memorial, then went to the Korean Memorial. From there, they took a journey to Arlington National Cemetery and witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“That was very, very impressive,” said Bobby.
“One of the most moving things I’ve ever witnessed,” William added. “I can’t say enough about how grateful we are for having been there and seen that.”
After a good night’s sleep, the group headed out to the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution by Dulles Airport. There, they got to see the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. At the museum, they also got to see a space shuttle, numerous other World War II aircraft and artifacts, and even space capsules that traveled to the moon and back. In addition, they were given a tour around Washington, where they got to see the White House, the US Capital, the Jefferson Memorial, the Pentagon, the National Archives and the United States Supreme Court building.
One story that William said that stood out to him actually happened on an elevator at their hotel.
“We were riding on the elevator when the doors opened and some people were getting out,” William said. “A lady on the elevator leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. She said: ‘Someone once did that for my father, so I thought I would just pay if forward.’ I never got to thank her or talk to her, but that was something.”
William summed up the feeling of both men at the end of the day.
“We would like to thank everyone who helped make this trip possible,” William said. “I will never ever forget it, and words can’t express how grateful I am and how proud we were to be there. Thank you.”