Lyndon, Denton, Ralph and "Chick" are not the type of guys who get a police motorcycle escort through Washington, D.C.

But on Oct. 11, the blue lights flashed and traffic was stopped for three busloads of real American heroes: veterans who won World War II. For one day, the U.S. Capitol belonged to the vanishing generation of men who marched into hell and rescued the freedom we take for granted today.

If asked, they can describe the stinking jungles of the Pacific, the eye-burning fumes of submarine duty, or three days strapped to a bunk in a Pacific typhoon that tossed destroyers around like bathtub toys.

Words Can't Say Enough

But some things just are not talked about, and others will always stay beyond the reach of feeble words. For the men who lived through it all, battles such as D-Day, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and the Battle of the Bulge can only be described by a trembling lip and stoic, muffled sobs as they visited the WWII Memorial for the first time and saw the field of gold stars that honor 400,000 who gave their lives.

I rode along as a guardian volunteer for Honor Flights, an all-volunteer non-profit with a noble mission: to make sure World War II veterans get a chance to see the monuments built on their behalf before they pass into what Abraham Lincoln poetically called "the mystic chords of memory that stretch from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land."

Every day another 1,200 of these veterans join the ones who never came home. So Honor Flight Tri-State, led by Cheryl Popp and other unpaid staffers, works hard to get as many as possible to the Capitol. Our flight was the fifth of the year. The US Airways charter carried more than 70 veterans and an equal number of guardians like me, who paid $350 for the privilege. The veterans pay nothing.

It was a long day, starting with a 7:30 a.m. welcome at CVG, a flight to D.C., and then a bus and walking tour of five Washington memorials: World War II, Korean War, Vietnam, Iwo Jima and the Air Force Memorial that overlooks the side of the Pentagon where a hijacked airliner vaporized on impact on 9/11/2001.

All of the veterans were on the far side of 80. Some were pushed in wheelchairs, but most walked all day. Even as the tour stretched into the 15th hour on the return flight to Cincinnati, I heard no complaints beyond an occasional, "I will sleep well tonight." Men with failing hearing, poor eyesight and painful knees seized the day the same way they took Rome and Mount Suribachi. It was inspiring and humbling.

Quiet Navy Vet

I was paired up with Clarence "Chick" Hickman of Newport, Ky., a quiet Navy veteran with a great sense of humor.

He was the sonar man on a destroyer, then taught sonar at Key West, where he once served a cocktail to President Harry Truman as bartender in the officer's club. Like many vets who came home from WWII, he got married and was beginning his life again when he was re-called and nearly sent to Korea. At the last minute, he was reassigned stateside "When they pulled me out of the line and told me that, unfortunately, I was not going, I wanted to kiss the guy," he laughs.

When I asked about his wartime experiences, he says he was very lucky. One of his scariest experiences was serving on a submarine that was ordered to test-dive far deeper than the maximum limits. Strange creaking noises, sudden leaks, white-knuckle fear. But he insists he was lucky. When he served on a destroyer, he tells me, weapons tests did not always go as planned. Sometimes they had to dodge their own launched torpedoes. Lucky.

Like many of the vets, he is kind, humble and perplexed by the VIP attention.

"They won't believe it," one veteran says, snapping pictures of the motorcycle cops, who posed with one of the vets who was celebrating his 99th birthday. "They will never believe we got a police escort."

As we breezed through the TSA checkpoints with a wave, without removing shoes and belts, a TSA woman greeted us, loudly declaring, "I love you guys. I ain't kiddin', I really, really love you!"

"Lordy, lordy," Chick says, shaking his head in happy disbelief. "All this for us?"

Everywhere we went there seemed to be buntings, banners, brass bands, smiles and waving flags. On the runways, fire trucks saluted with a rainbow of water arching over our wings. In the D.C. airport, jazz bands played 1940s tunes and patriotic music. As our caravan rolled through a rough section of D.C., a man on the sidewalk paused and saluted. "Lordy, lordy," he said as we came up the ramp in Cincinnati at 10:30 p.m., greeted by cheering families and friends. "They're doing all this for us?" Yes. Finally.

An Honor Flights sponsor, Ed Finke of Simply Money, explains, "These guys came home and went to work. Most of them never got a parade. Some of them might have been kissing nurses, but they weren't the ones kissing nurses on Times Square."

So yes. Finally. It was their day.

The monuments were stunningly beautiful. The WWII Memorial is huge and solemn, as it should be for the worst war in history. A reflecting pool is surrounded by granite columns, decorated with wreaths to mark all of the states. Majestic bronze eagles roost in the tops of twin pavilions dedicated to the Atlantic and Pacific wars.

The Vietnam Memorial is dark and brooding. At the Air Force Memorial, pillars soar upward. It's not hard to imagine the curving columns as a joyful jet-trail salute from the spirits of the dead, returning from those "mystic chords of memory" to honor the men who made it home.

But the Korean War Memorial and Iwo Jima grip the heart and don't let go. There is no subtle symbolism here. They are almost too real. The Korean War soldiers are spread out, on patrol; faces are haggard and worn. Their eyes stare right through you, exhausted and fearful.

At the Iwo Jima Memorial to the U.S. Marines, the flag-raising photo that epitomized victory in the Pacific is magnified to a scale of giants. Every straining muscle and muddy boot seems so real you can almost hear the grunts, sobs and cheers, and smell the blood, sweat and death.

These monuments to ordinary Americans who gave their lives in our nation's darkest hours make a jarring contrast to the rest of the city. D.C. looks like some kind of modern Pharaoh's Egypt, rising everywhere like the epic pyramids. The immense Agriculture Department glowers behind gray stone pillars. The inhumanly scaled architecture makes American citizens feel like Egyptian slaves, each of us harnessed to a massive stone block of debt, with the whips replaced by withholding.

It made me wonder "” does anyone ever drive by the endless rows of white markers in Arlington National Cemetery, then look at what government hath wrought and ask themselves:

"Is THIS what they paid for with their lives? Really?"

The WWII vets are rich in accomplishment, wealthy in their love of family, faith and nation. And in their prime, they were the most powerful men on earth, who defeated the worst evils of mankind.

Lyndon, Denton, Ralph and Chick may not think of themselves as rich and powerful. They don't wear the blue suits of politicians or the gray pinstripes of bankers. Instead, they wore T-shirts that said on the back: "If you can read this, thank a teacher.
If you can read it in English, thank a veteran."

But for one day, they clearly owned Washington.