WWII POW visits national museum

Published 9:13 am Thursday, September 6, 2018

By Mark Hager

President, Forks of the Yadkin and Davie History Museum; and Soaring Valor Guardian          

It was the trip of a lifetime for some World War II veterans as they were flown to New Orleans to visit the National World War II Museum.

Shortly after Independence Day, the museum contacted Don Timmons with the NC Veteran’s Coffee Organization about an opportunity through the Gary Sinise Foundation and American Airlines to find and transport World War II veterans from North Carolina to watch Beyond all Boundaries, the latest documentary on WWII produced by actor Tom Hanks and directed by David Briggs and shown in 4D.

Afterwards the veterans would be escorted by the National WWII Museum staff through the museum’s exhibits which covers nearly two city blocks. All costs including airline tickets and lodging were covered by the foundation.

The round trip included the tours and other events that would last for three days.

When Timmons contacted Harold Frank about the trip which the foundation titled: “Soaring Valor,” Frank became elated and said “yes.”

The foundation required that each veteran arrive with someone to serve as a “Soaring Valor Guardian” to relay instructions and take necessary measures to insure the safety of the veteran at all times.

Gary Sinise is best remembered in Hollywood productions such as Forrest Gump where he played the character of Lt. Dan. I remembered the important role he played in the movie Apollo 13 – the role of NASA Astronaught Ken Mattingly.

Sinise has always shared a deep concern and desire to help our nation’s veterans. I’ve always enjoyed watching the National Memorial Day Service in DC and this past year was particularly good and as usual, Sinise was serving as a co-host with fellow actor Joe Mantegna.

Sinise proudly remembers his two uncles that served in WWII and after the passing of his uncle Jack who was a navigator on a B-17 and flew 30 missions in Europe, Sinise began a partnership with the National World War II Museum. Sinise developed the Soaring Valor Flights program, which fits well the foundation’s mission: “to ensure the sacrifices of America’s defenders and their families are never forgotten.”

In Charlotte, at the gate to board, Frank, along with 23 other WWII vets gathered from across the Carolinas and were greeted with cheers. Sinise couldn’t make this trip but sent a close friend to do the honors. Lt. General Rick Lynch, a 35-year Army veteran with several combat tours in the Middle-East spoke to the veterans before they boarded the plane that had been donated by American Airlines. The flight crew gathered around the general as he spoke. They had also volunteered their time as an honor to be with the veterans.

Lynch spoke at length about the “greatest generation” but before his speech, I had the priveldge to talk with the general and handed him a copy of the Harold Frank documentary and informed him of the service of Frank.

Lynch, at the end of his speech, called upon Frank to speak to the veterans and crowd gathered at the gate. Frank reminded the crowd that “freedom isn’t free and comes at a hard price.” Frank paused and turned to the general and thanked the Sinise Foundation for “putting this all together.”

Then, he turned to the crowed and said: “I witnessed things in war and as POW that no one should’ve had to.” Frank spoke about D-Day and the costly fight to secure the Meredete Bridge and link up with soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division. He spoke of his wounding and capture at Beau Caudray and his treatment as POW.

Frank, thanked everyone and left them with a final thought: “No matter how tired or discouraged you find yourself, just take another step. Don’t ever quit.”

Many were in tears as Frank finished and calmly came up to shake the hand of Frank as well as each veteran as they went on to board the plane.

This was the 12th Soaring Valor flight to New Orleans with two more planned for this year.

I can’t say enough about the care for each veteran given by the Sinise Foundation. Those needing assistance, as most were, had wheel chairs or motorized carts ready and waiting.

People need to be aware that the remaining WWII veterans are in their mid-90s and at least one on this trip was 100. The museum and Sinise Foundation staffs joined to make each event memorable and as comfortable as anyone could hope.

I should note that at breakfast beginning at 0630 it was the Army veterans who arrived first, with Frank leading the way. I did my best to keep up and make sure Frank didn’t miss a single speech and especially secure a front table next to the stage to watch a performance of the “Victory Belles,” who sang patriotic melodies from WWII reminisant of the famous Andrew Sisters and gave Frank a few lip stick stains on his face. Lots of smiles and laughter could be heard from veterans who 74 years earlier had witnessed such horor at such a young age.

The documentary Beyond all Boundaries was phenominal and places the viewer into a 4D experience as each theatre of WWII is recounted. It brings a perspective of war as well as life on the home front that is indescribable and graphic and I encourge everyone to make the time to see it. The museum exhibition is similiary broken down into theatres of action and interactive exhibits and personal testimonies from thousands of veterans are at your fingertips in every exhibit. It would take a person realistically two days to view the exhibits which had been carefully restored. B17s, P51s and other aircraft are on full exhibit as well as just about every other item common to those who fought in WWII to include a submarine and a Normandy observation bunker.

Special exhibits abound detailing the role that women played to build the equipment and ordinance used during the war.

Plus, I was moved by the special Bob Hope exhibition featuring live footage of his numerous tours during the WW II peiod.

Over two blocks of New Orleans has been taken over by the National WWII Museum and that doesn’t include areas still collecting and preserving artifacts to this day.

Needless to say, it was an emotional event for all.

Upon time to return the veterans to their homes, touching hugs and fond remembrances of the event were shared between the museum staff, Sinise Foundation and the WWII Veterans.

The same treatment the veterans witnessed travelling to New Orleans followed them through the return to North Carolina. Before final landing procedures began nearing Charlotte, the American Airline captain and crew personally thanked each of the veterans. They had not only flown the veterans to New Orleans but stayed and toured with the veterans throughout the museum events and exhibitions.

I had the privilege to witness and record a truly memorable event honoring a remarkable generation that well earned the title “The Greatest Generation.”

As General Lynch reminded us: “The nation that forgets those that defended its freedoms will in turn be forgotten.”

I hope all of us will remember the hard cost that Harold Frank mentioned and each of you explain this to future generations of Americans. Many paid the ultimate price with their lives and sadly the members of the Greatest Generation will soon be gone from our presence –  but hopefully never from our memory.