By Lyle Moran
The sun had yet to rise.
Bleary-eyed old men and women gathered at 5 a.m. at the State Police barracks at Boston's Logan International Airport, boarding buses to a terminal.
They walked inside, meeting strangers who had formed a welcoming line.
"Thank you for your service," the strangers say, some holding large American flags.
Their gratitude was for 63 World War II veterans, many of them in wheelchairs that Sept. 28 morning.
Further into the terminal, a new group of strangers waited, young people following in the footsteps of the veterans.
"Thank you for your service," they say.
The veterans were en route to Washington, D.C., via Baltimore, on Honor Flight New England's 29th flight.
The nonprofit organization was founded in 2009 by Joe Byron, a former Manchester, N.H., police officer. The group's goal is to pay special tribute to WWII veterans for what they did for country.
Wheels down at Baltimore Washington International Airport, fire engines on the runaway shot water at the plane to welcome the veterans.
Inside the terminal, representatives of the different branches of the military eagerly stretched out their hands as veterans passed. Others clapped as the veterans stepped off the plane.
"Thank you for your service to our country," they say.
Members of U.S. Air Force Band played "God Bless America."
The veterans and their guardians, assigned for the day, then board buses to head toward the nation's capital, a motorcycle escort leading the way.
The buses pass the Iwo Jima Memorial. The group eagerly walks around the Air Force Memorial and some take photos.
Everyone awaits the main event: Visiting the World War II Memorial in the heart of the city.
The buses pull up, and smiles grow broad.
The men and women eagerly hop off their buses and plop into wheelchairs. Slow down, some tell the guardians who have pushed ahead.
Near the entrance sits Bob Dole, WWII veteran, Purple Heart recipient, former Republican U.S. senator and onetime presidential candidate. Dole was wounded in Italy in 1945, and lost much of the use of his right hand. Still, at age 90, sitting in a wheelchair, he tries to greet every Honor Flight group that passes through, grasp every hand of everyone who served.
At his arm is wife Elizabeth Dole, also a former U.S. senator, who hugs the veterans.
One after another, the veterans lined up to have their pictures taken.
Then the New England vets gather with Honor Flight groups from New York and Rhode Island for music and speeches.
Bagpipes bellow. Hundreds of veterans sit in their wheelchairs facing the Washington Monument as the WWII Memorial's fountain splashes behind them.
The tributes begin. The veterans listen intently.
"For us to bring you to your memorial, it is like if you had the opportunity to bring George Washington to the Washington Monument or to bring Abraham Lincoln to the Lincoln Memorial," says Earl Morse, co-founder of the national Honor Flight network, who traveled with the New England flight this day.
Their concentration is broken by a commotion at one end of the gathering. A tall gray-haired man in a suit and tie is making his way through the crowd.
The murmurs grow more audible.
"That's Colin Powell," many of the veterans say excitedly.
As he enters the pack, Powell, a surprise guest, shakes hands with some of the veterans. Photos are snapped. One of the first veterans to greet the retired four-star general and former secretary of state is William Theokas, of Lowell.
"I told him how much I thought of him," says Theokas, 90.
Powell makes his way to the front of the group as cheers and whistles ring out. He tells the group they inspired him to go into the service.
"You were my role models," he says. "You were the ones that gave me examples of what it meant to be a soldier, what it meant to serve the country.
"You were the ones who inspired generations of officers, soldiers, and airmen and Marines and Coast Guardsmen and all of us who served the nation in subsequent generations.
"We thank you for what you did," Powell says.
Hearty applause echoes off the monuments. The general quickly makes his way back into the crowd as veterans eagerly gather around him.
Other dignitaries making the rounds at the memorial are Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, and U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Powell greets Willis "Bucky" Buckingham, 89, of Westford, who had eagerly waited his turn.
Buckingham, who served in the U.S. Navy, says he told Powell that he met him years ago at Fort Devens, where Powell had once been stationed.
"Colin Powell just hugged and hugged me," Buckingham says.
Buckingham proudly wears a hat and jacket bearing the name USS Dorothea L Dix, the ship on which he was a signalman. He joined the service the day after Pearl Harbor, the Dix participating in 80 landings, including in the South Pacific, Italy and Southern France.
He strolls around the memorial, like other members of the Honor Flight New England crew, later saying he thought of the many places his military service had taken him. The Freedom Wall with thousands of stars, each representing 100 Americans who died in war, also prompted reflection.
"It reminded me of so many things," says Buckingham, sitting near the memorial's fountain. "I only wish that I could see some of my old friends who I served with."
Veteran John Murphy proudly wears his WWII uniform and an Eisenhower "Ike" jacket during the day. Murphy's guardian is his son, Jim, a Chelmsford High teacher.
John Murphy's time at the WWII Memorial was a chance for him to connect with family in the area. The group greeting him includes his daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"It was the thrill of a lifetime that they could join me," says John Murphy, who served in the Americal division of the U.S. Army, and lives in Boxford.
Theokas, who served in the Army in Europe, smiles the whole day.
"I have never shaken so many hands in my life," says Theokas, who worked for the Lowell Police Department for many years. "I felt like a first-class celebrity."
Kenneth Sennett, 93, of Billerica, also says he was touched by the support. Strangers both young and old came up to him and others and say, "Thank you for your service" and "Thank you for our freedom."
Sennett served for several years in the Army in the South Pacific. He fondly recalls the welcome home he received in San Francisco after the war, but says it was nothing like this day.
"It made me feel great and wonderful," Sennett says.
More tributes are in store.
Arriving at the Hilton near the Baltimore airport, the veterans step onto a red carpet as bagpipers welcome them. They are served a feast as the USO Show Troupe performs.
There was a moment of silence for the veterans who have passed on.
The dinner is put on by Ocean State Job Lot, which sponsors the New York, Rhode Island and New England groups' flights as "Operation: Gratitude 2013."
Back at the airport gate, Honor Flight New England founder Byron starts playing music, and encourages guardians to dance with him. Veterans, too.
Some pull themselves out of their wheelchairs and dance along to the Village People's "YMCA," attracting a crowd.
Theokas dances with his guardian, showing deft moves that defy his 90 years. John Murphy wows veterans and onlookers with his shimmying and shaking.
With the sun in descent, Stephen Kolesnik, a WWII veteran from Nashua, says he teared up a couple of times. The 87-year-old, whose guardian was Steve Panagiotakos, the former state senator from Lowell, says the memories from the day will last him a lifetime.
John Murphy agrees.
"Everything was so well planned and thoughtful for the veterans," Murphy says. "I never shook hands with so many generals as I did today.
"I had the best day of my life."
Follow Lyle Moran on Twitter and Tout @lylemoran.