"Magnificent!" "Awesome!" "Impressive!" "Fantastic!"
Local veterans who joined State Sen. George Maziarz on Oct. 6 for his WNY Heroes trip are still bubbling over with enthusiasm.
Thirty-four World War II veterans, all but two from Niagara County, were flown to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Memorial. None of the veterans had yet visited the memorial dedicated to the war they helped win. The World War II Memorial was completed in 2004.
"We toured the other monuments, too, but I think the World War II seems to be the nicest," said Navy veteran Jim Connery, 85, of Wheatfield. "We had a very exciting day that day."
"It surprised me so much effort was put into the monument itself. It was very emotional and it's hard to find words to describe how you felt," said Marine veteran and Wheatfield resident Bob Schuster, who will be 91 next month. "It was really a wonderful tribute."
He was especially impressed by the more than 4,000 gold stars representing mothers who lost a son to the war.
Some of the veterans were already moved to tears at the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport, where before the 8:25 a.m. flight, a kick-off ceremony was held in the terminal lobby with Congressman Chris Lee and the 914th Airlift Wing Honor Guard.
Once in Washington, the veterans, accompanied by a team of volunteer chaperones, were taken first to their own memorial, then around the nation's capital to see others, including the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial and the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. They had breakfast on the plane, a boxed lunch at the World War II Memorial, and a buffet dinner at a Washington restaurant before returning to Buffalo.
"These brave men -- and one woman -- in our group served our nation proudly when we needed them the most. We owe a great deal to their generation, and this trip is just one small way of saying ‘thank you,' " Maziarz said.
World War II veterans are extremely patriotic, but many don't talk much with their families about their experiences. The trip gave them, not only acknowledgement for their service, but a chance to see the memorial with others who had been "over there."
Schuster was part of the first Marine division, formed to fight the Japanese in the Pacific. He took part in the initial landing at Guadalcanal and the New Britain and Peleliue engagements in the South Pacific.
Connery, just 18 when he enlisted, served in the Navy aboard the USS Mississinewa, which was torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese in 1944. There were 278 people on that ship, and 63 lost their lives, Connery said. Witnessing the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery was a somber moment for him.
"It kind of got to me there when I thought of all the other men who had served and died," he said. It also made him miss his wife, who died in April, and had been excited about his being selected to be part of the WNY Heroes flight.
"This trip is completely free for the veterans," Maziarz said before the group left. "They have given enough. We want them to have a good time and enjoy this memorable experience. All of them are in their 80s or 90s, and this might be the only chance they have to see the World War II Memorial. We want to make it the opportunity of a lifetime."
Enjoy it, they did, although it was a long day for the senior citizens, some of whom are handicapped. Schuster, for example, was up at 3:30 a.m. to get ready to leave for the airport and didn't get back to his Wheatfield home until about midnight.
"It was a long day, but I didn't really feel tired," said Connery, although he admits, "I was happy to get home and talk to my children about the trip."
Maziarz said that special praise must be given to the Niagara USA Chamber of Commerce for its partnership in this event, to Health Systems Services for loaning wheelchairs, and to the staffs of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, Transportation Security Administration, and Southwest Airlines for their friendly cooperation.
Both Connery and Schuster made a special point of thanking Maziarz for coordinating WNY Heroes and accompanying them on the trip.
"Senator Maziarz and his staff did a magnificent job," said Connery. "He was with us all the way," added Schuster.
Other Tribune-area veterans selected for the trip were Jack Painter and Jacque Austin of Wheatfield and Al Kravitz of Sanborn.