Pearl Harbor, World War II remembered: Vets going the distance to visit D.C. memorial

(CBS News) Seventy-one years ago, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing America into World War II. Veterans and their families will gather today at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., to remember that anniversary, and all the battles that followed.

One of the striking things about visiting the World War II Memorial is just how many visitors are in their 80s and 90s: the World War II generation. For those that visit the nation's capital, the memorial is a place where they can come and reflect on what was lost, and what was gained, all those years ago. But getting some of the veterans to that place of remembrance -- that's a story all in itself.

Within 24 hours of Japan's surprise attack on American soil, the American people were at war. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Joe Demler joined the Army. Within months, he was on the front lines of the Battle of the Bulge, Germany's last major offensive and one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.

Pictures: Remembering Pearl Harbor

Asked whether Pearl Harbor changed his life, Demler replied, "Changed my whole life, everything."

Demler was captured and sent to a Nazi prison camp. "It was the coldest winter in history, and snow up over your hips," Demler recalled. "You know they say, 'Why didn't you escape?' Where you gonna go? You can't -- There's no place to go."

A photographer from Life magazine was on hand when Americans liberated Demler's prisoner of war camp. They called him "the human skeleton."

Demler and Julian Plaster are part of Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, a Wisconsin-based program that brings World War II veterans to see their memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Joe Dean, the organization's founder, said, "We have a great sense of urgency. One World War II veteran dies every 90 seconds in this country. Across Wisconsin, we've flown almost 5,000 veterans out here to see their memorial."

The organization is the subject of a new documentary called "Honor Flight."

Plaster said the first time he visited the memorial and saw "Wisconsin" on the memorial's pillar, he felt, "honored, really honored."

Plaster was 19 years old when he joined the Navy. He was sent to an island in the Pacific where he was given a shovel soon after arriving. Plaster said, "One of the Navy officers gave us some gloves and told us go and pick up all the dead bodies and load them into the truck, and that was my first experience."

Now Plaster's 18-year-old great-grandson wants to join the Army. Plaster isn't sure it's such a good idea. Plaster said, "I remember burying one Japanese solider, and in his hand was a picture of an old woman, and I'm thinking, 'Hey, he was thinking probably of his mother or his grandmother, same as we were. We kill one of our enemies, we create another 18."

From the front lines to the factory floors, 60 million American men and women volunteered to serve their country. They were to become known as the "the greatest generation."

The film "Honor Flight" notes this generation lived through the Great Depression, they went off to war, and they came back to the United States to rebuild America. And they did. But it would take the country 60 years to build them this memorial.

Plaster said of the World World II remembrance site, "It's lifted me up. It's given me a new perspective on what World War II was about because, for many years, I never thought about it. I never talked about it"

Dean said, "We can't walk a block in Washington, D.C., without groups stopping to thank these veterans. It's absolutely beautiful."

More than 400,000 American men and women gave their lives during World War II. For the veterans who have been lucky enough to make the trip to the memorial, Stars and Stripes Honor Flight makes sure their homecoming is just as memorable as their journey.

"This is the welcome home that this generation really never received," Dean said. "It really asks the question -- now that you understand this history and the enormous sacrifices that went into making us free -- what are we going to do about it... with that gift comes a great about of responsibility I think to live lives that somehow begin to be worthy of this gift of freedom that we've all been blessed with."

The veterans who come to the memorial on honor flights call it the trip of a lifetime -- one man told CBS News the visit makes their lives complete. Demler, by the way, the POW Life magazine called "the human skeleton," turns 87 today, Dec. 7, 2012.

For Chip Reid's full report, watch the video in the player above.

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