Based on her accent, the lady who approached our veterans in D.C. last week was obviously French. Thirty-one World War II and Korean War veterans had just disembarked from a bus chartered by Honor Flight Savannah and were lining up for a picture in front of the World War II Memorial.
"I want to talk with a man who fought in France," she said. One of our Honor Flight Guardians, Elon Flack, led her to Charlie Williams of Statesboro. Charlie is 94 years old. The French woman knelt before his wheelchair and took his hand in hers. Where did he fight the Germans in France? she asked.
Elon overheard much of the conversation.
"Charlie could recall several battles, but the only name he could come up with was Metz, France. During the battle for Metz, he recalled standing next to a good friend of his, shoulder to shoulder, and then seeing him killed with one sniper shot before his very eyes. Charlie still asks himself: Why him and not me?
"In another episode, Charlie's men were in a large building, possibly a warehouse of some kind. They smelled coffee brewing, but none of his men would admit to it. Charlie started investigating and followed his nose to a stairwell leading down into a cellar. As he quietly closed in on the coffee smell, he discovered a lone German soldier. He was very young, sixteen at the most, and had several grenades, rifles and a pistol. Charlie approached with his rifle ready to shoot the young German. When the young man saw Charlie and weighed his options, he immediately picked up his pistol and shot himself in the temple.
"Charlie explained that they were trained in the Hitler Youth, or brainwashed, into that kind of response.
"The third incident he recalled was in a village that was divided in two by a river, but connected by a bridge. The Americans controlled one side of the village and the Germans claimed the other side, which had the high ground advantage. The Americans knew the Germans were waiting for them to cross the bridge, only to trap them on their side by destroying the bridge. A waiting game ensued.
"Charlie and another soldier were near the bridge one day, probably on guard duty, when a French girl started crossing the bridge. The Germans lobbed a mortar onto the bridge, exploding and wounding the girl. Charlie and the other soldier rushed to her aid. Another mortar shell exploded, wounding Charlie as they carried the girl to safety into a house close by. The girl would die soon after -- the shrapnel wound to her stomach was too much for her to overcome."
The French woman held Charlie's hand tightly as he talked to her, the hand of an American who had been wounded trying to rescue an anonymous French girl some 70 years ago.
As she turned to go, the woman had tears in her eyes. So did Charlie.
Perhaps it's being in the company of other veterans, embarked on a trip designed to honor their service, that loosens their tongues. We hear stories they have never told even their wives, accounts of horror and courage, humor and grit.
Visitors to the World War II Memorial from all over the world stop to shake our veterans' hands. But we've never had anyone from France greet them. What were the chances that on Saturday, September 7, 2013, these two particular humans would meet?
We witness some amazing things on these trips. Someone, somewhere, was clasping Charlie's hand, murmuring a long-delayed thank you.
Carol Megathlin, a Savannah writer formerly from Americus, is a member of the Honor Flight Savannah Board of Directors; firstname.lastname@example.org.