Dec. 7, 2012 is the 71st anniversary of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, as well as WW2 veteran, Joe Demler's 87th birthday. A high school track athlete, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Here, Joe holds the iconic photo of himself taken by LIFE magazine photographer John Florea in Spring, 1945, shortly after his liberation from a German POW camp.
Florea notes, "In the town of Limburg we discovered an Allied prison camp ... They asked me for food that I didn't have. I did have a roll of Life Savers with me, and I said to these fellows all in a row, 'Fellows, this is all I've got.' So I gave each one of these kids a Life Saver out of my roll. Finally, I started to run out and I started breaking them in half and giving each one of them a half. Then I asked a couple of them if they could get up. One kid could not. He weighed something like 70 pounds, and I'll never forget his name ... Demler, Joe Demler."
Joe actually weighed 68 lbs. Nowadays, his philosophy is, "Every Day is a Bonus."
Joe's buddy Harvey Kurz, who struggles with dementia, bags groceries at the local Pick 'n Save in Milwaukee, WI, where customers appreciate his lively sense of humor.
Now Harvey and Joe share their stories to raise money for sending their fellow vets on the Honor Flight trips of their lives, and their efforts have helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the cause. And Joe's wife, Loretta, shares tearfully that his Honor Flight activities have done more to help with his dementia than his meds.
The documentary, Honor Flight: One Last Mission, which follows them and other veterans from Wisconsin on the grand adventure, opens today in NYC and Pasadena, CA.
Stars and Stripes Honor Flight (SSHF) is a Wisconsin-based hub of the national Honor Flight Network, the original organization, which was started in Ohio in 2004. A true "bottom-up" project, it began with one guy and a dream.
Earl Morse, was a Veterans' Clinic physician's assistant and Retired Air Force Captain. He knew that several of his aging patients had never seen the capitol city of the country they had fought for, so many decades ago. And most were not physically nor financially able to consider a trip like that on their own.
He wanted to provide an expense-free visit to Washington DC's World War II Memorial for them, and in 2005, with several other volunteer pilots, he made his first trip. After co-founding Honor Flight with Jeff Miller, Morse's dream has grown to 117 hubs in 40 states (http://www.honorflight.org/)
Wisconsin's Joe Dean was inspired by a brief national news segment on Morse's Honor Flight, and gathered a group together to start Stars and Stripes Honor Flight in his own region.
The film follows Dean, Demler, Kurz, and the Wisconsin hub's story, as well as the poignant stories of 89-year-old Julian Plaster who buried many of his friends while on "burial disposal unit" in the Pacific; and Orville Lemke, who was fighting a battle with cancer when the thrilling call came that invited him to go on the next Honor Flight. Orville bubbled over with enthusiasm for the six weeks after he returned from the trip before passing away.
One WW2 veteran dies every 90 seconds, that's over 900 every day, and Honor Flight is scrambling to provide the remaining vets with journeys of appreciation while they still can. Many of these vets haven't flown in a plane since WW2.
In addition to visiting the WW2 Memorial on the Mall, the veterans on these trips often also get to see the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the changing of the guard at the the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington Cemetery.
But for many, the highlight of the day is mail call on the return flight, when every veteran receives a package of cards and letters from family, loved ones and even strangers, solicited in secret before the trip. By the time the cards and letters of love and appreciation are all read, it's hard to find a dry eye.
The young filmmakers, Dan Hayes (Director) and Clay Broga (Producer) say, "Making Honor Flight has changed our lives. We're in our late-20s and, like most everyone in our generation, take a lot of things for granted. After hearing these WWII veterans' stories, that was put in perspective for us. The people we've met through the Honor Flight program and the experiences they let us observe, forced us to grapple with the issues of gratitude, family and freedom in our own lives. Through this ﬁlm, we aim to provide others with the same transformational experience."
It is not necessary to be pro-war in order to be pro-veteran. War experiences, like other aspects of life, are personal, social, contextual and complex, and are often filled with unexpected silver linings. And from Revolutionary times to the present, one of the benefits of wartime has been the opportunity for people with significantly fewer rights, such as women and people of color, to make huge strides forward in their circumstances--strides that had been impossible to make during peacetime.
The Honor Flight documentary makes history come alive by offering the richness of heart and soul far beyond the facts, as it provides an extraordinary opportunity for our culture to honor our elders. I think it should be required viewing for every high school history student.
The world premier of the documentary Honor Flight was staged in August at Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers, on one of the largest HD jumbotrons in sports. 28,442 people packed the stadium, where a Guinness World Records judge was on hand to officially announce that the film had set a new world record for largest attendance at a film screening. (The previous record was 27,022, set in Brazil in 2010 in the stadium of the pro soccer team featured in that film. click here)
The film opens on Dec. 7th (and starts its week-long run) in both NYC and Pasadena, CA.
Dec. 7th is the last night to see the film in 12 cities across Wisconsin in Marcus Theaters. There will also be screenings in Richmond, VA and Boston, MA:
NYC: Quad Cinemas (Dec. 7-13th)
LA: Laemmle's Playhouse 7 (Dec 7-13th)
DC: DAR Constitution Hall (Dec 7)
FL: Naples Cambier Park (Dec 7)
WI: Marcus Cinema: Appleton, Delafield, Green Bay, La Crosse, Madison, Menomonee Falls, New Berlin, Oshkosh, Saukville, Sheboygan, Sturtevant and Wausau (Dec: 5-7)
VA: Richmond's Byrd Theater (Dec 8)
Boston, MA: Showcase Cinema de Lux Legacy Place (Dec 10)
Screenings are listed on the website at http://www.honorflightthemovie.com/see-the-film/.
A DVD is scheduled for release on Memorial Day, 2013.
The article, WW2 Veterans Honored with Honor Flights to DC Monument, chronicles my 89-year-old dad's Honor Flight trip in April, 2010, in which I participated as a guardian:
All Honor Flight hubs accept donations, a good thing to consider during the holiday season.
Stars and Stripes Honor Flight in Wisconsin: http://www.starsandstripeshonorflight.org
Honor Flight Historic Triangle Virginia http://www.honorflighthtva.org
National Honor Flight Network: http://www.honorflight.org/
National Honor Flight Network would like you to know: Honor Flight Network, Inc. (honorflight.ORG), is the original Honor Flight organization. The flights and tours that Honor Flight Network provides World War II and terminally ill veterans are absolutely FREE.
Honorflight.COM and Honorflights.COM sites, while they have similar names, are NOT associated with the original Honor Flight Network, and they charge a fee for flights to visit the World War II Memorial.