The skies over the National Mall today were filled with the roar of warplanes that first took to the skies to fight totalitarianism thousands of miles from America’s shores. In honor of the 70th anniversary of VE Day, the “Arsenal of Democracy: World War II Victory Capitol Flyover” included dozens of 1940s-era planes, from the biplane trainers in which young men like George H.W. Bush learned to fly, to the most sophisticated bombers the United States produced at the time. The flyover was innovatively arranged by major battles, such as Pearl Harbor, Midway, D-Day, Iwo Jima, and the like, with aircraft representative of those that took part in such engagements. So much slower than modern jets, the planes swooped in over the World War II Memorial, swung around the Washington Monument, and flew straight down the southern side of the Mall, banking in front of the U.S. Capitol to return south to their airfields in Virginia.
Not only were the most iconic aircraft included, but also some of the rarest, including the only flying B-29 in the world today. I’ve been to numerous air-power museums, including the fine ones in Washington and the wonderful National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, in Dayton, Ohio. It’s one thing, however, to see static displays of some of America’s most famous warbirds, and something else entirely to see them cut through the skies and fill the air with their roar. Among the true rarities was a P-38 Lightning, the deadliest U.S. Army Air Force fighter in the Pacific Theater, and the plane which shot down Japan’s leading admiral, Isoroku Yamamoto. Seeing graceful B-17s, menacing B-24s and 25s, and of course, the massive B-29 overhead was like being in an air-power version of Jurassic Park. Meanwhile the famous F4U Corsair and beautiful P-51 Mustangs brought cheers from the thousands lining every rooftop in downtown D.C., clogging the Mall, and swarming the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial steps. The flyover ended with a moving “missing man” formation of the Corsair, Mustang, Grumman Avenger, and P-40 Warhawk, while taps played out over the WWII Memorial.
We’re all so familiar with these planes, even today, thanks to WWII movies old and new, that it somehow felt entirely natural to be watching them fly overhead, as though we were simply waiting for them to return from overseas. The thousands who turned out in the perfect spring weather proved that these planes, and the memory of the young men who flew them, remain part of our shared national identity, a cultural patrimony. There was no ambiguity attached to today’s honor flight, no questions about right and wrong, no second-guessing, no regrets. The crowd was young, old, black, white, and Asian. In fact, standing right behind me on the Capitol plaza was a very young German couple, which I felt was a bit ironic, but clearly inhibited them not at all.
As familiar as they may have been, each time one of the planes passed overhead, a chill ran down my spine, a combination of awe, gratitude, respect, and mourning. Over 88,000 USAAF pilots and crew alone lost their lives in the war, in both battle and through accidents, while at least 15,000 U.S. Naval aviators were killed while in service. Few of these men were over 30 years old when they took to the air or gave their lives. Their spirits filled the skies today, as much as the planes in which they flew, and honoring them eclipsed, for just one hour, the rancor that has become a way of life in Washington. Those on the Mall were, for that hour, simply Americans, with no labels or hyphens attached. We may have cheered the planes, but we were celebrating America.