The five Banz brothers came to the dedication of the National World War II Memorial yesterday wearing identical Navy caps and blue shirts embroidered with their first names.
"We're not just a band of brothers, we're the Banz brothers," they said as they introduced themselves to curious passersby.
The Banzes, accompanied by wives, children and grandchildren, traveled to Washington from their homes in Kansas, Texas and California. But the last leg of that long trek -- getting to their seats on the Mall -- was its own challenge.
Wheelchairs were needed for Weldon, 80, and Ray, 82. Ray's twin, Leonard, can still chop firewood, but he kept losing control of the wheelchair in which he pushed his wife along a bumpy sidewalk. The eldest brother, Obie, 86, who suffered a heart attack and a stroke a few years ago, walked very slowly. Don, still called the baby brother at 77, slathered suntan lotion on his legs bared by Bermuda shorts.
But in the end, it was all worthwhile to the brothers. It was a day to remember their youth, and the comrades of their youth whose lives were cut short.
"You can't help but have some pride," said Obie, choking back tears as he waited beside the Reflecting Pool for the ceremony to begin. "You wouldn't be human if you didn't have that feeling."
Since arriving in Washington on Thursday night, the Banz brothers have been approached repeatedly by strangers asking to take photographs of them. During a visit to the memorial Friday, an impromptu reception line formed as the brothers stood near the Kansas pillar and visitors waited to shake their hands.
"They epitomize what happened in the course of our history when farm families sent their sons and daughters off to fight in wars for our freedom and our liberty," said U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran (R), who represents the Kansas district in which the Banz brothers grew up.
But the brothers also have attracted attention for the sheer novelty of seeing five siblings who fought in the same theater, and who are still alive to tell about it. Unlike the famed Sullivan brothers -- five brothers from Iowa who died when the cruiser on which they were serving sank -- the Banz brothers did not serve together in the Navy, though sometimes only a few miles separated them.
They grew up in a town of about 300 people called Sylvia, part of a typically large family for the era and place. Their parents had seven sons and three daughters.
Obie Banz was out of school and driving a truckload to the East Coast when he heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Feeling angry and patriotic, he enlisted two days later. After making protective nets designed to entangle enemy submarines, he became a gunner's mate on the battleship New Mexico.
Ray and Leonard were the next to enlist. After becoming an apprentice seaman, Leonard headed toward New Guinea as a radioman. Ray was a yeoman who ended up on a Navy base in the nearby Admiralty Islands.
Weldon did not make it into the Navy until the end of 1942. Eventually, he was assigned as an ensign aboard a small Landing Craft Tank, a ship that in effect was a powered barge, making its way toward the Philippines.
The war was almost over when Don graduated from high school and joined the Navy in the spring of 1945. He was in Portland, Ore., helping load troops, when President Harry S. Truman ordered atomic bombs dropped on Japan. He made it to the Pacific, where he helped ferry occupation troops to Japan and back.
Being in Washington for the memorial's dedication brought powerful and deep emotions to the surface.
It was as if ghosts were looking over Obie Banz's shoulder when he stood near the memorial during a brief visit Friday.
"I kept looking for somebody," he said, apologizing for the tears running down his cheeks. "I lost the best friend I ever had. He was aboard a cruiser when it was shot at and sank. I kept looking for him. I felt he was there somehow."
Then Obie Banz recalled standing at his battle station below the turret early one morning as a torpedo streaked through the water, missing his ship but exploding as it hit an aircraft carrier nearby. The sailors spent days picking up body parts that would be sent home.
"I very seldom, even in my own mind, reminisce," he said. "I've just dealt it out of my mind. But now it's coming back."
Leonard has found himself immersed in the same pool of painful memories.
Two of his best friends were on planes that crashed while on missions, killing everyone aboard, he said.
"Especially on days such as Memorial Day or Veterans Day, or on days like this, it brings those times back very vividly," he said.