AUSTIN -- For veteran Vic Mathias, the photo is a look 68 years back in time.
"I was just barely 18 then," said Mathias, now 86, holding a framed portrait taken just after joining the Army following the outbreak of World War II.
Four years Vic's senior, Vic's older brother Arnold Mathias had already joined the Army, assigned to a tank division under the command of General George S. Patton. Vic joined the 66th Infantry Division, known as the Black Panthers, and both brothers were sent to the European Theater.
Throughout the fighting, neither knew where the other was.
"I often wondered, 'I wonder if he's around here somewhere? Where would he be? What's going on?'" said Mathias. "He got busted in Germany sometime while we were there, and it was a direct hit on his tank, so he was lucky to survive, but he did. He came out in good shape after awhile."
Nearly 70 years since victory was declared in 1945, Mathias is in some ways still learning about the history he was a part of. One of the first incidents he witnessed as a soldier has only recently been declassified and the story allowed to be told.
"On Christmas Eve they loaded us up to apparently go to the Battle of the Bulge," Mathias related. "When we got into the English channel, the ship next to ours got sunk."
That ship was the S.S. Leopoldville, which was sunk by a German U-boat and its demise kept a secret until 1996. Mathias said a relative told him of a History Channel special on the sinking and cover-up, which he immediately recognized as the one he had witnessed in 1944.
"They just killed the engine on ours immediately, and we sat there for three days," Mathias described. "It was supposed to have been a six-hour trip, so we had one K-ration, so it got a little skinny after the second, third day."
It's taken time for some aspects of the war to sink in.
"The scale was tremendous. Of course the threat to the American soil was tremendous too, coming from two sides -- both Japan and Germany," Mathias said. "It's just amazing to me what was done, now that I look back at it, to see how quickly we went from a very complacent country to defend ourselves."
Mathias also feels for today's soldiers who fought in Iraq and continue to fight in Afghanistan.
"I think there's got to be a better way to settle conflicts than shooting wars," said Mathias. "It's just not good. Those troops over there, I can feel exactly what they experienced and the anxieties of not knowing what's on the other side of a building or a hill."
On Tuesday, the two brothers will join 23 other World War II veterans from Central Texas on Austin's first Honor Flight to the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. Paid for completely by donations, Honor Flight Austin chairman Allen Bergeron says the support has been heartening.
"It's been remarkable," said Bergeron, who hopes Tuesday's flight will be the first of many such trips to honor the Greatest Generation. "The donations have been pouring in, anywhere from $10, $20, $25 to several thousand dollars. We had one local citizen that donated about $15,000, and we're still trying to reach out to big corporations for a corporate sponsor because we're going to need it for this next flight in October."
"These World War II veterans have never seen their memorial," Bergeron explained. "Many of them have never been on an airplane since World War II. So time is not on our side, and we have to get those veterans down there. They're dying at about a 1,000 per day."
The trip offers a life-changing experience for veterans, and for Mathias, that change means reconnecting with the people who shared a part of the past many would rather forget.
"When I got back from the war, I was really wanting to forget about it," said Mathias, who never joined a veterans' group after coming home from the war in 1946.
"I was just sort of ready to put the whole thing behind me," Mathias explained. "So this probably will be the first time I will have had the opportunity to get together with that many veterans at one time, and it will just be 25 of us, but I bet we'll win the war again."
The flight takes off Tuesday morning, and will return to Austin Wednesday evening.
For more information on Honor Flight Austin, CLICK HERE.