WASHINGTON -- He bravely fought for his country during World War II, taking two bullets in the name of freedom, but Tom Dimperio never had seen his nation's capital until Saturday.
Dimperio, a 93-year-old Modesto resident, and more than 30 other WWII veterans were part of an honor flight from Northern California that traveled close to 3,000 miles to see the memorial honoring their efforts in the war and to remember those who lost their lives.
"This is something that I never thought I would see, but it's amazing," Dimperio said.
Honor Flight Northern California sponsored the veterans' trip to Washington to give the "greatest generation" the chance to see the memorial built in its honor.
More than 1,000 WWII veterans die each day, according to the Honor Flight Web site, and the nonprofit strives to bring as many veterans to Washington as possible to see the tribute to their bravery. This weekend's trip was the third honor flight from Northern California this year.
Hearing 'thanks' is great
Ellis Van Sickle was 21 years old when he joined the Army Corps of Engineers during the war. When he came back from serving, there were no celebrations, no receptions, nothing, he said. Now 92, he finally received an overdue welcome upon arriving in Washington.
When the veterans got off the plane, the gate was lined with balloons, flags and people there to greet them and thank them for their sacrifice. Van Sickle's daughter Donna Thiel said it was powerful to watch small children rush up to shake the hands of the veterans.
"This is just absolutely great, because you realize what you have done in the past and it shows you that somebody shows appreciation for our accomplishment," Van Sickle said.
While he looked at the thousands of gold stars representing his brothers in arms who died in battle, Dimperio said the outcome of the war was worth the sacrifices.
"I don't think there will ever be anything to match World War II. The effort the United States put in to win this war, being attacked both in the Pacific and the European sides and to come out like we did? It's a miracle," he said.
Dimperio and Van Sickle didn't know each other before the trip, but are united by their service.
"When you talk to other people and listen to their stories, it puts you all together. It shows you that everybody had their job to do and everybody done it," Van Sickle said.
Future depended on vets
Some veterans walked around the memorial, some were wheeled. Most donned WWII caps and bright yellow shirts that read, "If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a veteran."
"Thank you very much, sir," 13-year-old Kyle Montgomery of Wisconsin said to Dimperio when he went up to shake hands with the veteran.
"It's pretty important that they served here," Kyle said, "or the whole future might be different."
When Dimperio was drafted, before the war started, doctors told him he had a bad heart and classified him as 4-F, meaning he was not qualified to serve. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was called back, took a blood test and was placed in the Army infantry.
"I was in the infantry, supposedly with a bad heart," Dimperio said. "And here I am 93 years, still going. so somebody made a mistake somewhere. I'm still alive, still enjoying life and glad to be here."
The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.