Bob Thomas was just 18 when he was sent to join up with Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army in Europe, where he fought at the Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Forest. Later, as a member of the Monuments Men, he helped rescue cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis.
On Saturday, Thomas was speaking for Army veterans of World War II at the Memorial Day remembrance ceremony aboard the carrier museum Midway.
"I'm here to represent all the guys of our generation, especially those who didn't come home," Thomas, 88, said with a catch in his voice as he gently tossed a wreath into the water. Joining him were a grade-school student and an active-duty Army sergeant major who served in Iraq.
The ceremony on the Midway, now in its 10th year, marks the unofficial opening of Memorial Day weekend here. This year, with the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings in Normandy just two weeks away, the French consul general from Los Angeles was on hand.
"The French people will never, never forget you restored their freedom," Axel Cruau told the 500-plus in attendance on the Midway flight deck. "Long live the United States. Vive la France and long live the Franco-American friendship."
As Memorial Day is commemorated in cities large and small across the country, perhaps nowhere is its meaning more intensely felt than in San Diego, where respect for military service is ingrained in the civic character.
The region is home to seven major military installations, two national cemeteries and an estimated 235,000 veterans. The SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden were trained in Coronado; Marines from the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton were among the first combat troops into Iraq and Afghanistan.
"San Diego is a military town, and we're proud of it," Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) told the Midway gathering.
Jim Williams, 35, brought his 7-year-old son to the Midway on Saturday, explaining: "I want the boy to understand his history and how much we owe to the men who fought and died for us."
Talking to reporters, Thomas remembered Patton's leadership ("his guts, our blood"), the Battle of the Bulge ("cold, very cold") and the rescue of literary treasures hidden in a salt mine.
He said that while he appreciated the term "The Greatest Generation," he avoids any sense of heroism for himself.
"We had a job to do," he said.
While the ceremony at the Midway was underway — with its patriotic music, high school ROTC color guard and restored World War II aircraft fly-by — another was taking place outside the Veterans Memorial Center Museum in Balboa Park.
Each year during Memorial Day weekend, Vietnam veterans read the names of local troops killed in that conflict, each name accompanied by the tolling of a bell. The roll call goes from sunrise to sunset.
On Sunday, a ceremony is set for the Miramar National Cemetery; on Monday there will be another at the Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery.
Also on Monday, a ceremony at the Mt. Soledad cross will honor Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, killed in Fallouja and a recipient of the Navy Cross. Among the speakers will be Marines who say Peralta saved their lives by smothering an enemy grenade.
Another ceremony at the La Vista Memorial Park in National City will include among its speakers Marine Staff Sgt. Mark Zambon, who lost both legs during a battle in Afghanistan. Rather than take a medical retirement, he remained on active duty so he could train young Marines about the dangers, seen and unseen, of combat.