WASHINGTON — Fifty-three veterans with the Utah Honor Flight were home Sunday after a free trip to Washington to see their memorials. One stop was new on the itinerary this time: the Navy Memorial, where they were treated to a special performance.
As the U.S. Navy Drill Team marched into the memorial, all eyes were on the men in uniform.
The Honor Flight veterans watched the precision performance intently. Just from looking at most of them, you wouldn't know which branch of service they were in, or that some have a special affinity for the Navy.
But there was one exception: Lew Cross carried the full weight of his past right on his arms.
"They're all faded out, but that one's a heart with 'mother' in it," he said, pointing to the tattoos on his forearms. "That was an anchor that said 'USN,’” for United States Navy.
For some reason, the seas called to Cross, and he credits the Navy with changing the course of his life.
"I was kind of a rabble-rouser when I was younger. I got it all out of my system, I guess," he said.
Out of his system, but not off of his skin: One tattoo marks the date he crossed the equator. The words on the bottom read "USS Indiana," the name of the ship that sculpted his life.
The Indiana is where Lew served — a battleship bristling with guns. His duties on an average day involved doing laundry or working in the ship's ice cream shop. But aboard a battleship in the South Pacific in World War II, there was no such thing as an average day.
"They had a whistle, and then announced general quarters, and you had to run for your battle station," Cross said.
Laundry, ice cream and firing enormous guns: That was Lew's life on the Indiana, a ship that always seemed to be at the tip of the spear.
"We circled Iwo Jima for nine days straight, bombarding it," he recalled.
Of course, a large battleship was a tempting target for kamikazes: Japanese suicide planes.
"We had pointers, what they called pointers, and then we had a radar tower up above us, and he'd direct all the guns," Cross said. "We couldn't see very much; all we could do was load the gun and shoot it."
Still, when a plane explodes right in front of you, it's hard to miss.
"The aluminum was sprinkled all over the deck, right alongside of our mount," Cross said.
He survived all the way through the war, and even witnessed its end as the Indiana was anchored right alongside the Missouri, where the Japanese signed their surrender.
"We had field glasses, and we was watching them sign it," Cross said. "We was just glad it was over and we could go home."
But that's not where Cross' story ends. He signed up for the Navy Reserves, which allowed him to go home early. But years later, the Navy came calling once again.
"They were waiting on the porch for me when I got home from work," Cross said. "That night, I was on the train leaving."
Two wars in the Navy: World War II and Korea. Nevertheless, Cross is a proud Navy man, with only one regret: those tattoos.
"I got them back in ’44. Pearl Harbor. Five dollars apiece. If I had my druthers, I wouldn't do it again," he said with a laugh. "Drunken sailor."
Still, those tattoos are a part of him, and the same is sure to hold true for this trip to Washington with the Honor Flight.
"I can't believe how good they're treating us," Cross said. "We're really being honored."
There is another Utah Honor Flight scheduled for next week. This one will fly from Las Vegas, serving veterans from southern Utah.