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On D-Day anniversary, Arizona ‘Honor Flight’ vets reflect on service

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WASHINGTON – Arizona resident Tony Alvarado stood in the World War II Memorial here Thursday, laughing and joking with other Tucson-area veterans until he was asked about D-Day.

On the 69th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, Alvarado still tears up when he talks about his brother Edward, who was killed in one of the first waves of Americans to come ashore in the invasion.

“I felt an emptiness and I still do,” Alvarado said, pausing to grab his handkerchief.

Alvarado, now 88, was one of 25 Tucson-area veterans who came to Washington this week with Honor Flight Southern Arizona, a state branch of a national non-profit that regularly flies World War II veterans to visit the memorial, and the nation’s capital, for free.

The memorial, opened in 2004 on the National Mall, consists of columns, pools and fountains, a somber reminder of the millions who served and the 400,000 who were killed in the war. But it is also a lively place for many, like the Arizona group, who joked with each other and snapped pictures with the family members who served as their “chaperones” on the trip.

At one point, they were approached by three women in 1940s military-style dress, a la the Andrew Sisters. Soon, a larger group has gathered around to get a picture with the Ladies for Liberty, or to hear them perform “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy.”

Even those few veterans who had remained fairly solemn cracked a smile at the singing.

When the veterans talked about the war, though, their attitudes became less carefree.

“It wasn’t a game of cowboy and Indians,” said Andy Thonton, 94, a nurse who was stationed in Boise, Idaho, during the war.

She served in a unit that dealt with severe injuries. Even on the homefront, she saw gruesome injuries, but Thonton said that as a nurse “you just do your job.”

Not all the memories are grim. Thonton joked about the fact that the numbers were in her favor in Boise: 15 or 20 women and thousands of men.

While the Arizona group appeared to enjoy the visit, being able to see the memorial held special significance for Alvarado, who wanted to pay respects to Edward. The two grew up in a big family in Douglas, where Alvarado remembers working for $1 a day.

Alvarado, who was deployed to Okinawa in December 1941, said his last letter from his brother arrived after Edward was killed. Edward, always respectful, hard-working and obedient, said he knew he was going to die and told Alvarado to take care of their mother.

As Alvarado talked about his service, dozens of middle-school children and adults approached to shake his hand and thank him. Alvarado shook their hands, exchanged a word or two, or offered a smile. Then paused.

“I had to do my duty,” he said simply.