MANATEE -- It was something that Joe Muscatello, Ed Kellogg, Elroy York and 52 other World War II veterans thought they might never live to see:
The World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., which pays homage to the 16 million men and women in uniform and those who supported them on the home front during the war.
Yet, this past weekend, they visited the memorial as part of an Honor Flight, sponsored and organized by the Rotary Club of Lakewood Ranch.
It was an experience that may have meant more to the men and women on the flight than most can imagine.
Monday, York wore his blue Honor Flight T-shirt to work as a Publix bagger in Lakewood Ranch, and Muscatello wore his to meet a group of billiards buddies, dubbed "The Miscues," at Colony Cove.
When Muscatello, 85, met
The Miscues, wearing that shirt and a black hat identifying him as a World War II, his friends gathered around him.
"I didn't know. Thank you for your service," said Richard Lee, shaking Muscatello's hand.
The reception that the World War II vets received during their journey and at war memorials in Washington is what some of them remember the most.
They tell of airport restaurants and bars emptying as patrons left drinks or plates of food to cheer them, or shake their hands.
They tell of being surrounded by Girl Scouts, who were in Washington to celebrate their organization's 100th anniversary, and who clamored to thank the vets.
Ed Kellogg, 91, took part in World War II invasions in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, as a Navy lieutenant and deck communications officer for the attack transport ship U.S.S. Thomas Jefferson.
The journey brought back memories of shipmates who lost their lives in the line of duty during World War II.
"I thought of all my good buddies who did not come back," Kellogg said.
He also remembers the soldiers and marines who lost their lives after the Jefferson put them ashore on hostile beaches.
His biggest operation: D-Day, when the Jefferson helped land the third wave of troops on Omaha Beach.
Edward Edinger, 88, served in the Army anti-aircraft artillery and was on the Honor Flight.
"It brought back a whole lot of memories," Edinger said. Both he and Kellogg live at The Windsor of Lakewood Ranch,
The veterans also were touched by hand-written cards from southwest Florida school children, thanking them for their service.
Denise Hearn of Lakewood Ranch, as governor of Rotary District 6960, recruited clubs from Palmetto to Marco Island to help the vets make the Honor Flight at no cost.
Each of the vets had a guardian to keep them well during the whirlwind one day flight up and back.
"It was absolutely wonderful," said Denise Hearn's husband, Jerry.
"It was an emotional experience," he said.
All those Girl Scouts wanting to shake hands with the vets made an impression, too. "Youth and age," Hearn said.
Today, only about 2 million World War II vets remain alive, and the world is losing about 1,000 of those every day.
Muscatello was 18 when he was drafted in 1945, sent to basic training, and then placed on a troop ship that zig-zagged to Okinawa.
Had not President Harry S Truman ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Muscatello believes he might have been part of the invasion of Japan.
Now there is a memorial that commemorates so much sacrifice.
"None of us ever thought we would get to see it," Muscatello said.
Also happy to make the Honor Flight were 91-year-old twin sisters Marian Boyer and Millie Dost, who live in Westminster Communities, Bradenton.
The sisters served as nurses in the war, Boyer in the Navy, Dost in the Army.
"It was such a wonderful adventure for all the veterans," Boyer said. "We were received so well at every place we stopped. Everyone was so gracious."
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet @jajones1