World War II veteran Sidney Walton sat in his red wheelchair at the back of the crowd waiting.
His children mopped his face and head with a damp cloth in the heat, as D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D. C.) wrapped up their speeches boosting statehood for the District.
Walton wore a black suit with a pale blue shirt and dark blue polka dot tie. Four balloons announcing that he was 100 bobbed from the back of his chair. His son’s fiancee cooled him with a handheld electric fan.
But as the event at the D.C. War Memorial concluded Thursday, and VIPs began to drift away, it seemed that Walton might be overlooked.
But then Norton returned to the lectern.
“I’ve just been told there is a veteran in our audience who is 100 years old, who served in World War II,” she said.
As applause broke out, Walton, whose children said he served in the China-Burma-India theater, was wheeled to the front and was thronged by well-wishers and photographers.
Walton, accompanied by his son Paul, his daughter Judy, and Paul’s fiancee, Amy Cowden, has been traveling the country, greeting political leaders in every state — 21 so far — giving people a chance to meet an American veteran of World War II, Paul Walton said.
The number of such veterans is declining quickly. Walton always regretted that, as a young man, he had never been able to meet a veteran of the American Civil War, his son said. (Some Civil War veterans lived till as late as the 1950s.)
“We’re carrying the message of how few World War II veterans there are left,” Paul Walton said. “We wanted to give everyone an opportunity to meet one before it’s too late.”
There are about 500,000 left, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. An estimated 340 die every day, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
Walton, who lives in San Diego, is among the oldest of those, and one of the oldest Jewish American World War II veterans, his son said.
Born on Manhattan’s heavily Jewish Lower East Side, Walton entered the Army nine months before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 brought the United States into World War II.
“I joined the Army to fight Hitler,” he said Thursday. “I hated that man so much. I’d give anything to fight him.”
But just before he was to ship out to Europe, he broke an ankle in a training accident, his son said. After he recovered, he was sent to India.
His son said he believes he served as a medic in the infantry.
After the war, Walton taught geology at Duke University and North Carolina State University, his son said. He met his late wife, Rena, in 1954. They married and had children. She died of cancer in 1982 at the age of 56. He never remarried, his daughter said.
Walton turned 100 on Feb. 11. He got to meet President Trump at the White House in April, his family said. He was the honorary Grand Marshal of the Memorial Day parade in Washington on Monday, his son said.
His children would like to take him to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of D-Day next week. “We don’t have our tickets. We don’t know how we’re going to get there yet, but we’re going to do it,” Paul Walton said. They have established a website (gosidneygo.com) to solicit donations.
On Thursday, after they got the balloons out of the trunk and maneuvered Walton into the chair, they wheeled him to the event, which was held at the elegant memorial to Washingtonians who died in service in World War I.
As Norton, Bowser and others gave rousing pep talks about the push for D.C. statehood, Walton seemed to nod off in his chair. “Dad, no falling asleep right now,” his son had cautioned earlier. But it was a steamy, drowsy day.
Amy Cowden took off the veteran’s blue ball cap and cooled his head with a damp cloth. This is “Mayor Bowser,” she told him, as the mayor spoke, “Mayor Bowser.”
“Bowser,” he replied.
At one point, it looked like Walton was about to be recognized, as Norton said she wanted to introduce an important military figure.
“Here we go,” someone with Walton said.
But it was Elliot J. Tommingo, director of the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs and a major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, who came to the microphone.
Afterward, Norton thanked the audience and people began to leave.
The Waltons waited. They were scheduled to meet the mayor. Then, Norton returned to the microphone.
Walton was quickly surrounded by the cameras and posed for pictures with the mayor, Norton and other dignitaries.
“Okay, ready, Dad? Smile,” his son said. “Smile real big.”
Bowser listened to his story and said, “God bless you.”