Updated: June 19, 2013 6:06AM
Two years ago, I was privileged to attend a veterans event that gave me chills, goose bumps, and a lump in my throat, as it did for most every guest.
This Tuesday evening, you will be able to experience a similar feeling, thanks to a heartwarming documentary that wonderfully captured that scene and others like it. The film is coming to this region for a one-night only showing.
Back in 2011, at Chicago Midway International Airport, I watched curious Cub Scouts, girls with flowers, and older loved ones with promised kisses wait patiently with tiny American flags.
I watched gray-haired military veterans wait in decorated vests as leathery as their weathered skin alongside hundreds of others to create a patriotic flash mob.
Proudly sporting red, white and blue hats, shirts and props, they held handmade posters: “Welcome Home!” “Thank You!” and “We Love Grandpa!” They converged to welcome home heroes from a bygone era but obviously not from a forgotten conflict, World War II.
The crowd came to give belated gratitude to local WWII vets who took part in Honor Flight Chicago, a day-long excursion to Washington D.C. The national program was founded in 2008 to recognize WWII vets with a day of honor, remembrance and celebration from a proud and grateful nation.
The flights escort WWII vets, average age 88, to the nation’s capital for long awaited visits to the World War II Memorial, as well as other war memorials. The flight’s all-expenses-paid mission is to show those vets that America has not forgotten their service and sacrifices, even 65 years later.
Most of these vets stuffed their memories, experiences, and painful struggles from that war into their duffel bag and never talked about them again. But now the documentary, “Honor Flight: One Last Mission,” takes a gentle peek inside those decades-old duffel bags to reveal one amazing story after another.
“They never got the welcome home that they deserved,” the film’s narrator explains.
“Honor Flight” profiles four World War II veterans and a Midwest community that comes together to give them the trip of a lifetime. Roughly 1,000 WW II vets die every day, so just getting them on any Honor Flight in time is a constant battle.
The film was created by Freethink Media, a production company devoted to telling stories about freedom, human well-being and achievement. This movie illustrates that with flying colors and the star-spangled colors of freedom in this country.
“The film features Orville Lemke, a former plumber and beloved father of nine who fights to hold off terminal cancer so he can make the trip, and Julian Plaster, an 89-year-old poet who has survived almost all of his friends and family,” the film’s website states.
“Honor Flight also chronicles the stories of veterans Joe Demler and Harvey Kurz. They raise money for and promote the Honor Flight program to help fly as many of their fellow veterans as possible,” the site states.
Demler was famously pictured in Life magazine as “the Human Skeleton” upon his liberation from a German POW camp. Days from death, he weighed just 70 pounds.
His comedic sidekick in the movie, Kurz, saw the iconic flag go up at the Battle of Iwo Jima, unbeknownst to the shoppers he bags groceries for at his local Pick n’ Save.
“We have an urgent task to connect with as many of the veterans and get them their day of honor before they pass away,” said volunteer Pete Stenberg, a Northwest Indiana photographer who is presenting the film’s premier in this region.
At 7 p.m. Tuesday, the film will be played at the AMC Showplace Schererville movie theater, and you’re invited to attend. If you are a vet, or know a vet, even better. It should be a magical night.
“I have already talked to an Army and Navy recruiter about coming to the theatre in full uniform to honor the vets,” Stenberg said. “And also to police, firefighters, bagpipers, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the Patriot Guard to see who can participate that night.”
The film will be shown only once at the AMC Showplace Schererville, and all WWII veterans will get free admission.
“Lake Hills Volunteer Fire Department has purchased 30 tickets for us to distribute to any World War II vets who can attend,” Stenberg said.
Tickets are $11 and can be purchased online at www.tugg.com/events/3499 or by contacting Stenberg at 558-0042 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets cannot be purchased through the AMC Theatre, Stenberg noted.
For more info on the film, including a poignant trailer, visit honorflightthemovie.com.
“Myself and other volunteers are feverishly working to get the word out to the public about the importance and urgency of Honor Flight Chicago. Our mission is to bring our World War II veterans to visit their memorial in Washington, D.C., at no cost to them.”
Several local WWII vets have taken part in the program, including 85-year-old Gil Hancock, a U.S. Air Force plane mechanic from DeMotte who was nominated by his daughter, Laurie Clippert.
In 2011 at Midway Airport, the Munster woman joined her mother, Rose Hancock, her husband, Steve, and their two children to welcome home her father.
“I’m just grateful to be a part of this,” Gil told me before he left for Washington.
At 8:55 p.m. that night, a color guard of grizzly vets marched through the crowd parading American flags of various sizes. The crowd buzzed in anticipation, as if awaiting celebrity rock stars.
At 9:06 p.m., a volunteer strolled through the crowd holding a large sign stating, “PLANE HAS LANDED.” The crowd erupted into cheers.
At 9:21 p.m., the sound of bagpipes could be heard in the distance playing a collection of patriotic military songs. The crowd joined in to sing “God Bless America.”
Soon after, the elevator doors opened and the first wave of WWII vets invaded the baggage claim area, most being pushed in wheelchairs by young female sailors.
“Here they come!” a volunteer yelled.
Gil looked around him at all the fuss and said, “This is one of the greatest days of my life.”
In the award-winning film, this very reaction was echoed and amplified by every vet who flew on the Honor Flight. The next best thing to seeing this scenario in person is to watch this movie. You won’t be disappointed. It poignantly embodies the true spirit of our country.
Listen to Jerry’s “Casual Fridays” radio show today at noon on WLPR, 89.1-FM, streaming at www.lakeshorepublicmedia.org.