ALBANY -- Durward Hayes capped off a whirlwind 90th birthday celebration Saturday with a trip to the nation's capital to visit the World War II Memorial on the famous National Mall.
Hayes, a Navy veteran who served on the gun crews of the USS New York and the USS Talledega during WW II, and 88 other veterans of the Great War flew to Washington on an Alabama Wiregrass Honor Flight that left Dothan, Ala., at 5 a.m.
Hayes got back to Albany at around 1 a.m. Sunday morning, a little worse for the wear but having taken part in a touching program that honors World War II veterans.
"Yeah, it was a little tough on some of the older people who went," Hayes joked. "But for the young ones like me, it wasn't so bad.
"The thing is, my hand hasn't recovered yet. I shook more hands in that one day than I ever have in my life. But it was a great honor, and I appreciate the opportunity so much. There were so many people expressing their appreciation for what we did during the war, so many people who came up to shake our hands and say thank you, it will make you have tears."
Hayes, who retired in 1979 after a 28-year post-Navy career at Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany, was surprised last Dec. 5 by around 50 friends and relatives who gathered from all parts of the country to honor him on his 90th birthday. Two of that group, nephews Reese Cross and Sidney Belcher, took it upon themselves to see that their uncle's birthday celebration was extended.
"There were a lot of the kids who wanted to see Durward get to make the trip to Washington," Hayes' wife of 64-plus years, Ruth, said.
Belcher, an attorney, met with U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., while on business in Washington, and his conversation not only paved the way for the Honor Flight, it led to a special birthday gift from Shelby.
"He sent me a flag that flew over the Capitol on Dec. 5," Hayes said. "He said it was in honor of my birthday and my service during the war."
The Hayeses met some 200 others for the Honor Flight at the Dothan airport in the early-morning hours Saturday. Each of the 89 veterans was accompanied by an escort -- in Hayes' case, Cross, himself a Vietnam vet --and there were health care personnel on board to meet the veterans' needs.
The group flew to Baltimore and was taken in three buses to the capital. After a bad wreck delayed their arrival a bit, the group made its way to the memorial. On this day, more than 14,000 WW II veterans from across the nation were visiting the monument.
Hayes' honor group visited Arlington Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Iwo Jima Memorial before spending time at the WW II Memorial. The veterans also got a quick bus tour of the White House, the Capitol, the Pentagon, the U.S. Mint and the Federal Building.
"The last time I was in Washington was 40 years ago," Hayes said. "I was stationed at the Naval air base there for a few weeks. The city's changed a lot since then. You used to be able to get around in it, but not anymore.
"I think everyone who lives in Washington was out walking the streets that day. The ones who weren't were buried in Arlington. I think I understand now why our government can't get anything done; everyone's out walking the streets."
When the group arrived back at the Dothan airport around 9:30 Saturday night, it was met by an honor guard and an appreciative crowd.
"That was quite a sight to see," Ruth Hayes said. "A band was playing, and there was an honor guard lined up to salute the veterans. Around 40 of the group that went were in wheelchairs, and they were the first ones off the plane. You could tell they were tired, but they were exhilarated by the reception.
"All the veterans came off the plane one-by-one, and seeing the reception they got was just a big chillbump moment."
Durward Hayes said even with the never-ending handshakes, the trip was a memorable one.
"It ranks way up there," he said, extending his arm as high as he could reach in response to a question of where the trip ranked among his list of memories. "I appreciate this opportunity so much. These people (the Alabama Wiregrass organization) spent a lot of money to send us on this trip, and it was such a wonderful experience. I'm sure appreciative."
A grateful nation, no doubt, would offer Hayes a big right back at you.