Ambushed by Heat, WWII Veterans Won't Be Turned Back at Memorial

Delbert H. Leweke, 85, of Illinois was among the veterans who braved the heat and humidity this week to visit the National World War II Memorial. Leweke, who served with the Army's 109th Evacuation Hospital, made his first visit to the memorial yesterday.
Delbert H. Leweke, 85, of Illinois was among the veterans who braved the heat and humidity this week to visit the National World War II Memorial. Leweke, who served with the Army's 109th Evacuation Hospital, made his first visit to the memorial yesterday. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 11, 2007

They step carefully from taxis and rental cars, steadying themselves with canes or the arms of their middle-aged children. Safely on the sidewalk, they look up and take in the granite and bronze grandeur of the National World War II Memorial.

The rush of memories and emotions takes them back to their 20s, when they were young and agile and their hearing and eyesight were sharp. Back to when they traveled by fighter plane, submarine, tank, battleship and parachute to face down the forces of the Fuehrer and the Emperor. They stand in the Washington heat with sweat rolling down their faces. Some allow themselves to cry.

This is a moment they want to share with their families before they die.

So even with temperatures reaching triple digits Wednesday and the high 90s Thursday, these proud veterans refused to stay away -- or, worse, to simply cross the memorial off their list of things to see.

"It's part of me," said Judson Frederick, 82, who traveled from Toledo to see the memorial with his daughter. "Some of my friends never came back, and I wanted to honor them. Some of the guys I grew up with in Ohio went into the Army with me and never came back. I want to honor all of them."

Some veterans said they didn't factor the heat into their plans.

The combination of old age, fading health, profound emotion and high heat can be deadly. D.C. emergency responders said they are often called to treat heat-related episodes at the memorial, whose granite plaza can be five degrees hotter than the rest of the Mall.

"We see a lot of people who want to make a final pilgrimage, and they step down into that memorial, and it's like a heat bowl down there," said Lt. Jeff Wright of the D.C. fire department.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that 1,900 veterans die each day, most of whom served in World War II.

"I figured if I didn't see it now, I never would," said Walter Sturgeon, 85, who drove from Utah with his son and daughter-in-law. "They should have built this 20, 30 years ago."

Some veterans limited their visits this week to 20 minutes or so -- enough time to walk down into the memorial, pose for photos at their home state pillars, reminisce about battles engraved in their memories and register their names.

Bob Duddy, 82, of Maine had a cab wait as he walked to the memorial Thursday. The Navy veteran was accompanied by his wife, a son, two grandsons and his little sister, Dotty Duddy, who still remembers throwing rice in the streets when the war ended because "Bobby's coming home."


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