Hundreds of people, including many aging veterans, gathered Friday at the National World War II Memorial to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the conflict in Europe.
On the warm spring morning, they huddled in the plaza of the broad stone memorial, just west of the Washington Monument.
To the strains of bagpipes and big band music, they came in wheelchairs, with walkers and canes. Many wore badges marking their service during the long-ago war.
Don Egolf, 95, who lives in Washington’s Armed Forces Retirement Home, wore a blue combat infantry badge on the lapel of his blazer. He had earned it as a 24-year-old Army staff sergeant and squad leader fighting in Germany.
“What was it like? That’s hard to say,” he said as he stood unsteadily at the memorial. “It was exciting. . . . And when you got into combat it was more exciting. How do you explain combat? That’s hard to do.”
He said he was married and had two children when the war began. He enlisted and served in the 102nd Infantry Division. Egolf said he was honored to be present.
“I earned the right to be here.”
More ceremonies and honors will unfold throughout the day.
An air armada of planes flew over the Potomac, turned at the Lincoln Memorial and flew down the Mall over the World War II Memorial to mark the anniversary. They flew in 15 separate formations at 90-second intervals.
The flyover, along with a wreath-laying ceremony at the World War II Memorial and other events, was expected to make it the biggest gathering since the memorial’s dedication in 2004.
National security adviser Susan E. Rice addressed the crowd during the wreath-laying ceremony, saying that those assembled had come to “honor all those brave men and women who fell, and those who survived, including the proud veterans who are here with us today.
“The story of your generation will never be forgotten,” Rice added. “We will continued to tell it to children blessedly untouched by war. So that they understand, as this memorial reminds us, the price of freedom.”
President Obama issued a White House letter saluting the veterans.
“As we commemorate V-E day, let us recommit to the believe that justice is the only answer to hate and intolerance, and let us extend our gratitude to all those who fought and sacrificed to carry it toward,” he wrote. “May God bless and protect all who served then and who served today.”
Army Air Corps veteran Bernard Dupuis, 88, of Winchester, Va., sat in a wheelchair wearing his old “crushed” cap and his silver captain’s bars.
“I was a headquarters man,” he chuckled. “The largest thing I ever flew was an LSD, which is a large steel desk.”
He said he was with the 86th fighter bombed wing in Germany. He was an 18-year-old draftee from Berlin, N.H., when the war broke out. “I’m very proud to be here… pleased to be here,” he said. “It’s probably my last one for sure.”