Downtown San Diego — Memorial Day is about memories, and they were in abundance Saturday as the Greatest Generation mingled with the youngest generations aboard the USS Midway Museum.
From ages 9 to 91, attendees spoke of events decades old and experiences a day old.
The 9-year-old was Preston Moss, visiting the Midway for the first time with his family from Arizona.
“It’s awesome!” he exclaimed when asked his first impression of the carrier docked on the downtown waterfront. “I’m going to take pictures for my teacher.”
The 91-year-old was James Reilly Sr., a bombardier who was shot down over Austria and was liberated from a POW camp in May 1945.
“This is the greatest military town in the country,” he said, having moved here two years ago to be near his son, James Jr., 64, who served on the last crew before the Midway was decommissioned in 1992.
Reilly and other World War II veterans gathered to commemorate the upcoming 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of France, which led to the liberation of Europe and Germany’s surrender in May 1945.
“May we inherit their DNA,” Midway President and CEO Mac McLaughlin said of the veterans.
France’s consul general in Los Angeles, Axel Cruau, added his memories to the day. Although only 40, he recalled stories from his grandfather, who as a teenager greeted American soldiers bearing chocolate and chewing gum when they landed in France in 1917 during World War I. During World War II, the family property was inadvertently damaged during a bombing run.
“It was war and they did what they had to do to save us,” his grandfather told him years later.
To the audience of about 500 on the Midway flight deck, Cruau addressed the elderly vets, many of whom volunteer as docents on the Midway.
“The French people will never forget that you helped restore their freedom,” Cruau said. “They will never forget that without you, they wouldn’t be here today. Without you, I wouldn’t be here today.
“Your courage and dedication is an example for us all. You are an example of the Greatest Generation, a generation that faced despair and deprivation during the Great Depression, but went on to fight for liberty and freedom during the second World War, that rebuilt Europe and Japan and invented a freer, more democratic and just world — a world that we are living in today.”
The hourlong ceremony included a wreath-laying by four World War II veterans and four active-duty military members, one for each branch of the service, as well as four boys and girls, who tossed the wreaths over the side of the Midway into San Diego Bay.
Historic aircraft flew overhead, the Pomerado Community Band performed and the Grossmont High School Navy Junior ROTC served as the color guard. Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, took note of San Diego’s military heritage, concluding, “And we’re proud of it.”
Memories were particularly strong for Bob Thomas, 88, who grew up in Los Angeles, became an eye doctor after the war and moved to San Diego in 1962.
“I’m a Monuments Man,” Thomas said, referring to the soldiers who discovered looted fine art and German artifacts hidden in salt mines by the Nazis. Their efforts were recently the subject of a Hollywood movie.
Thomas, who also served in the Korean War, said he and other soldiers descended 2,500 feet underground in a mine in Ransbach, Germany, where they came across a treasure trove. He kept two 16th-century volumes — a statute book and commentary on Roman law — and in 2009 contacted the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
“I wanted to return them to the libraries they had been taken from,” he said.
These days, Thomas recounts these and other war stories at the Midway every Friday, as a docent.