WASHINGTON -- The seat next to me was empty.

As the first Lowcountry Honor Flight carried about a hundred World War II vets to the nation's capital to visit their long-overdue memorial, one of them couldn't make it at the last minute.

Just as well, because I was making this trip for Harry, my father, who didn't live to see this day. The empty seat made it feel like he was along for the ride.

And he would have been proud, almost seven decades after the fact, that his generation was getting this kind of special attention. But like those who did make this journey, his humility would not have let him show it.

"It's kind of strange getting honored for something you did so long ago," Gordon Grant of Hilton Head Island said as firetrucks formed a welcoming arch of water upon their arrival here at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

But the planeload of veterans, mostly in their 80s, got used to the attention. As they deplaned, they were met with a brass band and a long line of people applauding their arrival.

Even Harry would have smiled.

Over there

Harry Burger was like most of these vets, he joined the fight shortly after Pearl Harbor.

Dad told us he volunteered for tank duty because he didn't want to walk. But there must have been moments when he wondered about that decision.

During the war, he rose in rank to be a commander in Gen. George S. Patton's Sixth Armored Division. But that's about all we know.

Like most children of combat veterans, my brother and I never heard much about what happened over there. Guys like Harry came home, went to work and never talked about the war.

We inherited an old army footlocker with some letters he wrote to our mother from France. There was a Nazi flag, a silver star and a bronze star, but that's about it.

We know he received a battlefield commission, but he said he got it because everybody else got killed.

I always wondered what he did with all those horrible memories. They weren't in the footlocker.

Real heroes

Such is the legacy for most of the Greatest Generation. Only recently, in their waning days, have we decided we missed the boat when it came to honoring what they accomplished.

On this sun-splashed Saturday in our nation's capital, 10 other flights came loaded with World War II survivors from other states. While there were some walkers, canes and hearing aids, these veterans were remarkable in their sturdiness and stamina.

It was a long day, filled with tours of monuments to every war we've ever fought. But each step of the way, the folks who run Honor Flight made sure they were regaled with thank-yous for their service to our country.

A humble bunch, these men and a few women were clearly touched when they arrived at the memorial that recognized their efforts, the 400,000 who died for the cause and the millions who passed on before this kind of recognition began.

Mostly, these old warriors just feel lucky they made it back alive. And they've done a lot of living since. They've raised families, built a nation and retired to live out their golden years in peace.

Almost all will tell you the war was the greatest adventure of their lives, but the real heroes never came home.

Broke down

Just to be around these veterans is to relive history. Indeed, there's a story behind every handshake.

Throughout the day, there were conversations about submarines, aircraft carriers, landing craft and paratroopers. And in quiet moments, among themselves, they talked about Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Normandy and a hundred other battles you never heard of. And yet, to them, the memories are still vivid.

This program, Lowcountry Honor Flight (www.honorflightlowcountry.com), brings honor to those who never sought plaudits for doing what had to be done. And it couldn't happen without contributions and many volunteers who serve as guardians for the vets.

It also has a time element. The next flight is in April. And they will do the flights until there are no more veterans to honor.

But the day was theirs and theirs alone. Everywhere they went, people stopped and thanked them. Bands played. There were police escorts. And every now and then, there was a tear.

And just when they thought it was all over, they arrived back in Charleston to hundreds of people cheering, bagpipes playing and military honor guards snapping to attention.

Don Pounder, a Navy veteran from Mount Pleasant, said the whole experience was simply overwhelming.

"When I heard the national anthem today I simply broke down and cried," he said. "I've never seen anything like this in my life."

Which, of course, is the purpose behind the Honor Flights. I just wish Harry could have come along for the ride.

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com or 937-5598. To read previous columns, go to postandcourier.com/burger.