Dick Eldridge was a hospital corpsman with the Seabees in World War II, while Karl Koles served as a yeoman in the Marshall and Gilbert islands. Both 84-year-old men were guests of President Obama Thursday at the White House to watch an advance screening of the HBO series, "The Pacific," which chronicles the bloody, island-hopping combat that American troops endured from Guadalcanal to Okinawa in World War II.
"Being invited to the White House - that was one of the great highlights of my life," said Koles, a member of Post 108 in Cheverly, Md. "Eldridge and I were the only World War II veterans there."
"President Obama came right over and shook our hands, and we had a little conversation with him. He asked us where we had served, and he also thanked us for serving at a time when America really needed us," Koles said that meeting the president was "a very sincere moment. It wasn't just one of these ‘shake your hand and move on down the line' kinds of things."
Eldridge, a member of Post 248 in Oxen Hill, Md., said Obama came into the White House screening room with actor Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg - key members of the production team for "The Pacific" and the earlier "Band of Brothers" series.
"Mr. Obama went through each aisle and greeted everyone who was there, chair by chair," Eldridge said. "And when he shook hands with us, he used both hands and thanked us for doing our duty in wartime. It was a hearty, welcoming handshake."
Although the two World War II veterans did not get to meet Hanks or Spielberg, they got another warm welcome from Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "He came over to us, shook our hands, and gave us each a JCS coin," Eldridge said. Koles said that Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus was sitting right next to him.
Koles and Eldridge watched one hour of the first episode in the series and said they were quite impressed by the production, which premieres Sunday on HBO.
"When the movie started, I got all tingly, because I knew it was going to be about all of us who went through that experience," Eldridge said. "I thought it was pretty accurate on how the Pacific War was fought. How they landed on the island, how it was real quiet for a while, and then all hell broke loose."
Eldrige said he would definitely recommend the film to his fellow Legionnaires.
Earlier in the day, Hanks and Spielberg spoke to a crowd at the World War II Memorial in Washington, honoring about 250 veterans gathered there for their service to America.
"The Pacific" series focuses on the lives of three U.S. Marines fighting their way through several battles, including Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Research for the program was based mainly on two books: "With the Old Breed" by Eugene Sledge, and "Helmet for My Pillow" by Robert Leckie.