WASHINGTON — The airplanes flew in from the northwest, fighters in tight formations, bombers alone or in pairs, filling the hazy sky over Washington with the sound of a bygone war.
It was an aged fleet, almost as old as the old men in wheelchairs who watched from the ground as they passed — rugged machines, with big piston engines that were built for war, and then junked when it was over.
There are only a few left, like the men who flew them. B-17 Flying Fortresses. B-24 Liberators. P-51 Mustangs. Lightnings. Corsairs. Avengers.
But on Friday, before a colorful crowd of thousands below, they brought back some of the sight and sounds of World War II.
The occasion was the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, and hundreds of dignitaries and veterans had gathered amid the warm weather for ceremonies at the National World War II Memorial.
To the strains of bagpipes and big-band music, the veterans came in wheelchairs, with walkers and canes to hear speeches and watch the flyover.
Many wore badges marking their service or rank during the war, and they were lavished with thanks from bystanders.
Among the veterans was former B-29 bomber pilot Thomas Robert Vaucher, 96, of Bridgewater, New Jersey, who sat in a wheelchair wearing a black ballcap that said “B-29 Superfortress.”
He was in the front row of VIPs as the planes flew over, and when a B-29 rumbled overhead, “it brought back a pile of memories,” he said.
His Superfortress was nicknamed “Miss Lace,” after a racy cartoon character drawn by famed cartoonist Milton Caniff. Vaucher said Caniff provided a drawing of the character, and an artist painted it on the plane.
“She was scantily dressed,” he remembered.
He recalled the heavy anti-aircraft fire over Tokyo, and how, as long as you didn’t hear the thud of an impact on your plane, you were okay. On one mission in June, 1945, he said, his airplane was hit so many times it was retired for spare parts.
He said he and his crew started counting holes after they got back from the mission, and stopped at 400.
The B-29 — the plane that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — was capable of flying very long distances.
At one point, Vaucher said, his flights began in India, went over the Himalayas, stopped for gas in China, took off again to bomb Japan, and then headed back.
“We flew them at maximum weight, because we were flying them further than they were designed to be flown,” he said. “We were always taking off overweight. We were always using the entire runway. We didn’t get off the runway until the last brick.”
He said someone asked him Thursday if he was ever afraid.
“I said, ‘I was never, ever afraid. Sometimes concerned. But not afraid.’ That’s a very different thing, to be fearful,” he said. “You had so much going on you didn’t have time to be afraid.”
He said he also happened to fly what he said was the final combat mission of World War II, leading a flight of 500 B-29s over Tokyo, as a show of force, while the Japanese surrendered on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, but I was the leader of it,” he said.
The flyover began at 12:10 p.m — 56 planes in 15 formations that flew along the Potomac River, turned left at the Lincoln Memorial and flew down the Mall. The planes did not fly directly over the crowd, but hugged the river for safety reasons, organizers said.
People applauded as an announcer identified the planes — fighters, bombers, trainers, transports — when they flew past.
One plane had some engine trouble, pulled out of its formation and landed safely at Reagan National Airport, officials said.
The crowd was among the biggest to assemble around the war memorial since it was dedicated in 2004.
People also watched from the terraces of the Kennedy Center and from the rooftops of Rosslyn (Virginia). On the lower Kennedy Center terrace, a crowd of about 200 watched.
The passing P-38 fighter got applause from observers and the two B-17 bombers got more applause.
A number of people watched from boats, canoes and kayaks in the Potomac just downstream from the Roosevelt Bridge, and a few people watched from the pedestrian walkway on the bridge.
Back at the World War II Memorial, other veterans were present.
Don Egolf, 95, who lives in Washington’s Armed Forces Retirement Home, wore a blue combat infantryman badge on the lapel of his blazer as he approached the memorial before the ceremony. He had earned it as a 24-year-old Army staff sergeant and squad leader fighting in Germany.
“What was it like? That’s hard to say,” he said as he stood unsteadily at the memorial. “It was exciting. . . . And when you got into combat it was more exciting. How do you explain combat? That’s hard to do.”
He said he was married and had two children when the war began. He enlisted, because so many others had, and served in the 102nd Infantry Division.
Egolf said he was honored to be present.
“I earned the right to be here,” he said.
The keynote speaker during the commemorative ceremony was national security adviser Susan Rice, daughter of a member of the legendary African-American World War II aviation group, the Tuskegee Airmen.
“We honor all those brave men and women who fell, and those who survived, including the proud veterans who are here with us today,” she said.
“The story of your generation will never be forgotten,” she said. “We will continued to tell it to children blessedly untouched by war. So that they understand, as this memorial reminds us, the price of freedom.”
President Barack Obama issued a White House letter saluting the veterans.
“As we commemorate V-E day, let us recommit to the belief that justice is the only answer to hate and intolerance, and let us extend our gratitude to all those who fought and sacrificed to carry it toward,” he wrote. “May God bless and protect all who served then and who serve today.”
As the speeches were underway, Army Air Corps veteran Bernard Dupuis, 88, of Winchester, Virginia, sat in a wheelchair wearing his old “crushed” cap and his silver captain’s bars.
“I was a headquarters man,” he chuckled. “The largest thing I ever flew was an LSD, which is a large steel desk.”
He said he was with the 86th Fighter-Bomber Wing in Germany. He was an 18-year-old draftee from Berlin, New Hampshire, when the war broke out. “I’m very proud to be here . . . pleased to be here,” he said. “It’s probably my last one for sure.”
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Washington Post staff writer Lori Aratani contributed to this article.
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