World War II veterans Aalon Ferguson, 88, and George Martin Jr., 86, didn't know each other before Thursday, but within moments of meeting they seemed the best of friends.
The pair, both from Longview, was among 33 East Texas veterans participating in the fourth WWII Heroes Flight, a whirlwind, two-day tour of Washington, D.C., to view the nation's capitol building and military monuments, courtesy of Brookshire's and Super 1 Foods.
The group, dressed in matching red shirts, gathered at 5:30 a.m. at Brookshire's store at 100 Rice Road in Tyler, where they were greeted by country superstar Trace Adkins, who performed the national anthem as a large crowd gathered nearby in a slow rain to listen.
“It's wonderful to be with a group of people as old as I am,” Martin said, nudging his new friend. “I'm really grateful. We didn't know each other before a couple of hours ago, and now I'm mad because we're so old.”
The men served between 1942 to 1946 — Ferguson as a tech sergeant with the U.S. Marines in the southwest Pacific and later on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, and Martin as a petty officer first class with the U.S. Navy Amphibious Corps, serving in both the Pacific and the Philippines.
Adkins, an award-winning, four-time Grammy nominee, shook each veteran's hand as they boarded a charter bus bound for Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, ahead of soaking, spring showers.
The singer said afterward it was a humbling experience to spend time with “the greatest generation.”
He said his grandfather was a World War II veteran, but he never knew him.
“These guys are national treasures, they really are,” Adkins said. “That (war) was a bloody, bloody affair. We haven't had to go through anything like that … it would be hard for us to imagine everything they went through.”
Mayor Barbara Bass and Brookshire's CEO Rick Rayford welcomed the crowd and thanked the veterans for their service.
Rayford said the grocery company is happy to provide the trips for the veterans.
“It's a small thing to do to say thank you,” he said. “We wish we could do more.”
A total of 141 veterans have participated in the trips so far, Brookshire's Public Relations Director Sam Anderson said.
Rayford said the trips are beneficial not only for veterans but also for the people who accompany them, many of whom are employed by Brookshire's.
“They (employees) return with a greater appreciation for the veterans and their communities,” the CEO said.
Brookshire's Longview store manager Toby Adams and wife, Annette, seem to be a perfect example of connecting store associates to communities.
The couple picked up Longview veterans Ferguson and Martin in Thursday's early morning rain storms and drove them to Tyler.
“My husband knows both of them — they are his customers,” Mrs. Adams, dressed in patriotic red, white and blue, said. “We had to dodge many (downed) trees to get here, there were no lights, but we made it. Gosh, it was fascinating to listen to their stories.”
“I'm excited to get to know them a little more,” he said. “It's really awesome.”
Veteran Robert Shaw, 84, of Lindale, said he also was looking forward to the visit.
He served in the 20th Air Force in the Pacific as a right turret gunner, mechanical engineer and equipment operator on a B-29, working out of Harmon Field on Guam, at Saipan and Iwo Jima.
“I was with the outfit with B-29s that dropped the atomic bomb and saved my life and other lives,” he said.
His wife, Bonnie, said she's always wanted to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in person to honor the memory of their son, who died in 1979, but she's satisfied to get photos.
“I'm just glad he gets to go,” she said. “I'm excited for him.”
Adolphus Barnett, 88, of Jefferson, said he served with the 1st U.S. Army on D-Day at Omaha Beach and participated in Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army in the Red Ball Express, a supply truck convoy involved with Battle of the Bulge, Battle of Cherbourg and the Breakout.
Barnett said he learned about the WWII Heroes Flight just last year but never thought he would be selected to go along.
“I just can't describe it,” he said. “To me, it's a chance of a lifetime.”
His wife, Helen, and daughter, Marilynn Harrison, agreed.
“I feel it will be something he will never forget,” Mrs. Barnett said. “God has been so good.”
Louis Burleson Jr., 85, of Tyler applied to go on the Heroes Flight about two years ago and was delighted to learn a few weeks ago he was accepted.
“It feels wonderful to get together and do this,” he said, expressing appreciation for the opportunity.
Burleson served in the U.S. Army Air Corps 534th Air Engineering Squadron in the 13th Air Force at Clark Field in the Philippines. His service came as the war was ending, from April 1945 to December 1946.
“They must have heard I was coming and gave up,” he teased.
Oakley Newton, 94, of Jacksonville, served as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army's 81st Infantry Division, invading Angaur Island (Palau group), then on to Peleliu Island.
“I spent four years in the service,” he said. “The last part was in Japan.”
He said he'll never forget the experiences that unfolded during his service, June 1942 to December 1945, but predicted the Heroes Flight will be even more memorable.
Newton's daughter and son-in-law, Ginny and Davy Sanders, said they never tire of hearing his war stories.
When asked whether he ever had any close calls, Newton said he managed to dodge a lot of bullets.
“I'd guess that would be a close call,” he said.
In the crowd, Canton veteran Doyle Dove's wife, Marge, and daughter, Marsha Hasson, waited in the rain to wave their goodbyes. Dove served as an aviation machinist's mate third class in the U.S. Navy.
“He didn't seem to be as nervous as we are,” Mrs. Dove said, watching her husband blend into the crowd of veterans. Ms. Hasson added, “I'm just happy he gets to go.”
The charter bus filled with veterans drove through rows of flag-waving supporters, including representatives of Welcome Home Soldiers, Patriot Guard and Soldiers for Jesus.
Debbie Albright and Josie Sewell continued to wait around as the crowd dispersed, hoping for Adkins' autograph. The women said they received a double benefit from their early morning trip to Brookshire's — seeing the veterans and their favorite singer.
“I stayed up all night to be here,” Ms. Sewell said.
Editor Dave Berry, who is accompanying the veterans on their journey, contributed to this report.