WASHINGTON – Old soldiers squinted up at a brilliant blue sky Friday, remembering battles fought and comrades lost, as the United States marked the 70th anniversary of VE Day with a spectacular flyover of iconic World War II aircraft.
Several thousand spectators converged on Washington’s National Mall under a sizzling midday sun to witness and cheer the aerial cavalcade of 56 American fighters, bombers, transporters and trainers that helped the Allies clinch victory in Europe.
Few were moved more than the 300-odd frail but determined World War II veterans, many in wheelchairs, who were welcomed as honored guests on the concourse of the National World War II Memorial.
“Very inspiring,” said Bob Wilcox, 93, after gazing at the 15 waves of growling piston-powered aircraft, which included two B-17 Flying Fortress bombers like the ones he flew as a U.S. Army Air Corps lieutenant. “It’s amazing, really, that so many of them are still flying today. It was just great to see them,” Wilcox said alongside his proud family.
“It brings back memories of when we crossed the Rhine and the sky was literally black with planes,” added Robert Zimmerman, 89, wearing the same U.S. Army sergeant’s uniform he had when he left the service.
The flyover was the biggest of its kind over the U.S. capital, passing through airspace that since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 has been a de facto no-fly zone that also takes in the White House.
From simple Piper Cubs to speedy Mustang fighters, plus a rare Catalina flying boat, the aircraft flew down the Potomac River, around the Lincoln Memorial, over the Mall lawn and past the Capitol.
Each of the 15 waves marked a key episode in World War II for the Americans, from Pearl Harbor and Midway to D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and the assault on Iwo Jima.
Planes ranging from biplanes to the B-29 took part in formations representing Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the naval Battle of Midway and the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Fifi, the only B-29 still flying out of nearly 4,000 built, brought up the rear, recalling similar Superfortresses that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, hastening the war’s end in the Pacific. The bombers were used in a number of air raids on Japanese cities and in the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing stage of the war.
A P-38 fighter flew to highlight a formation titled Yamamoto Shootdown, marking the downing of a Japanese airplane in Papua New Guinea that resulted in the death of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
To the strains of “Taps” on the ground, four fighters flew the final formation, with one peeling away in a “missing man” salute to American aviators who never returned from combat.
“It means so much,” said Henry Miller, 87, who was a teenager from Ohio when he fought under Gen. George Patton in the Battle of Bulge in southern Belgium in the bitter winter of 1944-45.
The aircraft — restored, maintained and flown by volunteers — flew Friday out of two airports in northern Virginia.
One — a Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber — diverted unexpectedly to Reagan National Airport, across the river from the Mall, when it developed mechanical problems.
“It made a precautionary landing, and all is well,” said Leah Block, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Commemorative Air Force, one of the lead organizers of the Arsenal of Democracy flyover.
Friday’s event was preceded by an hourlong commemoration at the National World War II Memorial, where envoys of nearly 30 Allied nations joined their American hosts in a wreath-laying ceremony as Scottish bagpipers performed “Amazing Grace.”
More than 16 million Americans served in uniform from 1941 — when Japan’s brazen air raid on Pearl Harbor shattered the United States’ isolationist hopes of staying out of the war — until 1945.
More than 405,000 were killed in the conflict.
“We owe each of you an unpayable debt,” National Security Advisor Susan Rice — the only member of President Barack Obama’s administration to speak at Friday’s commemoration — told the veterans.
“The story of your generation will never be forgotten,” added Rice, whose father, Emmett, was a Tuskegee airman, among the first black Americans to fly with the U.S. Army Air Corps.