Visiting veterans storm closed war memorials

The elderly veterans piled off their buses at the World War II Memorial a little after 11 on Tuesday morning. Some eased into wheelchairs. Others leaned on canes. All had come to pay homage to their famous crusade and fallen comrades of long ago.

Veterans of Omaha Beach, Okinawa and the Italian campaign, they arrived only to face metal barricades and signs announcing that the memorial was closed because of the federal shutdown.

Gentle men in blue baseball caps and red T-shirts, they said it was emotional just to be there — and a shame to have come all the way from their homes in Mississippi for this.

Suddenly, in the bright sunshine, cheers and applause erupted. The barricades had been moved — by whom it was not clear. And the column of veterans poured through the gap in the lines and into the memorial.

It was a chaotic scene from the first day of the shutdown: frail-looking men — at least one of whom hadn’t been to Washington since the war — led by jubilant Republican Congress members and television crews as a bagpiper played “Shenandoah.”

They planned for months and traveled far to visit Washington, D.C., but tourists have been greeted by the government shutdown, which means closed museums and sites. The Post's Zoeann Murphy talks to some of them on the Mall. (The Washington Post)

Bystanders clapped and shouted, “Thank you for your service!”

No Park Police officers were immediately in evidence in the scrum.

The memorial had been closed at around 8:30 a.m. and its fountains shut down shortly after that. A National Park Service spokeswoman said Park Police were there monitoring the situation.

“It’s the best civil disobedience we’ve seen in Washington for a long time,” Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) told part of the group inside the memorial.

“As the son of a World War II veteran, I just want to say, guys, forget about all this politics and all this junk,” he said. “This is about you today, and this is about us saying thank you to you and your service.”

Someone shouted: “Members of Congress here say America doesn’t shut down!”

And a group of people called out in unison: “We love our congressmen!”

It was unclear just who had moved the black bicycle-rack-type barricades.

Huizenga said the lawmakers had done it. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said he thought the Park Service had opened the gates. “I think the Park Service leadership didn’t like the visual,” he said. “And who would?”

The monuments are closed because, during a shutdown, there is no money to pay the rangers who staff them, said the Park Service spokeswoman, Carol Bradley Johnson. And the agency is worried about the security of the memorials and the safety of visitors at unstaffed sites.

“It is not something we enjoy doing,” Johnson said. “But it’s important that we protect and preserve our monuments for future generations.”

Rep. Steven M. Palazzo (R-Miss.) said the barricades just seemed to part for the veterans Tuesday.

“All I can say is the Japanese couldn’t stop them,” he said. “The Germans couldn’t stop them. Apparently a little gate couldn’t stop them.

“I just looked down and they parted,” Palazzo said.

The veterans were touring the memorial on the Mall as part of the Honor Flight program, which flies in veterans from around the country for free to visit the memorial.

The group had paid $80,000 to charter an airplane, and the plans were too far advanced to postpone when the government shut down, said Wayne Lennep, spokesman for Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight.

Their plane arrived at Reagan National Airport at 10 a.m. from Gulfport and was greeted by cheers and people waving small American flags.

By 11:30, the veterans were on the Mall, where, at midday, some memorials and monuments were closed and others were not.

Before their assault, the Mississippi veterans were upset about being shut out by the closedown.

“I’m mad as hell about it,” Percy Scarborough, 88, of Petal said as he sat in his wheelchair.

The veteran of the 1944 Allied landing on Omaha Beach in France said: “Why would they close something like this? Why would they close Washington? Damned folks can’t get along.

“I think we ought to take them all and send them home,” he said. “Get a new group, if they can’t work together.”

Once inside the memorial, though, Warren “Andy” Anderson of Diamondhead, who flew weather missions on B-25 bombers during the war, said it was very nice.

“I’m glad I got in,” he said. “This is the first time, and probably I won’t be here again because I’m 92 years old.”

The Mississipians were not the only old soldiers who stormed the barriers of political gridlock Tuesday.

At the Mall’s Korean War Veterans Memorial, a group of Puerto Rican vets said they also moved barricades to lay a wreath and pay tribute to comrades.

They represented the Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment, which fought savage battles, often against overwhelming Chinese and North Korean forces, during the war.

Anthony Mele, president of the regiment’s honor task force, said a Park Police officer spoke to the group. Then, “his body language was he literally turned his face and walked away,” Mele said, as the men moved the barriers to enter.

“We went on the other side of the barriers like good soldiers should, and we laid our wreath there,” Mele said. “We were told that all permits were rescinded. . . . I thought they said all permits were rescinded except ours.”

Thomas Lopez, 84, said he was honored to be able to visit the memorial and remember fellow soldiers of the 65th regiment.

“This is a shame to me,” he said of the bypassed barricades. “We’re part of this country, and we fought for this country, and it doesn’t seem necessary.”

Dan Balz contributed to this report.

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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