KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Recently I viewed a powerful documentary called “Honor Flight.” Indeed, it is one of most stirring documentaries I’ve ever seen. Focusing on four World War II veterans, the film spotlights an organization bent on saluting the remaining members of the “Greatest Generation.”
As the press notes describe the documentary, “a Midwest community has banded together to race against the clock in order to fly thousands of WWII veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the memorial constructed for them in 2005, nearly 60 years after the War.”
The trips are called Honor Flights, and it’s often the final trip of their lives. Sometimes, it’s also the first time they’ve been thanked.
“It’s uncommon for World War II veterans to talk about the War, but the Honor Flight experience brings their stories out,” the press notes say. “Many veterans say, with the exception of their wedding day and the birth of their children, the trip is the best day of their life.”
For me the film was uplifting, but also personal. My own dad, who passed away last year at the age of 90, had been in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. He served as a radio operator in the China-Burma-India theater, traveling around the world, at one point being stationed on Okinawa. During that period, a fierce hurricane forced members of his unit to scramble to caves in the hills in order to take cover. There, he saw the charred remains of Japanese soldiers who had met their fate by means of flame throwers. He was in that cave for two days.
As I watched the documentary, I saw my dad in each of the men spotlighted in the production. Like theirs, his body was succumbing to the ravages of time, but like them, his mind was still alert and his attitude optimistic till the very end. Dad missed out on going to D.C. to see the memorial, but the local chapter of the VFW had recorded his wartime experiences in detail.
During a recent phone interview, I spoke with Dan Hayes, director of the film, and to Joe Demler, an 85-year-old World War II veteran who was captured at the Battle of the Bulge. As a POW in a Nazi prison camp, he was depicted by Life magazine as “The Human Skeleton.” He weighed just 70 pounds and was days from death before his release. Full of life, this retired assistant postmaster is still an exhorter of the expression, “Every day is a bonus.”
Q: Dan, what caused you to get involved with Honor Flight?
HAYES: I was a video producer in 2009 in Washington, D.C., and my dad told me these vets were coming from Wisconsin to see the World War II Monument. So, I went to do some interviews and during my first interview with a vet, I asked him how he was doing and he said, “I can die a happy man now that I’ve made this trip.” When someone says something like that to you, it resonates. Throughout that day, I spoke with several vets. Then I put together a short video for YouTube and got more reaction from that video than anything I had ever done. My partner and I quit our jobs and jumped into this full time, and a year and a half later we got to meet awesome guys like Joe and made this documentary.
Q: Joe, what kept you going during your ordeal in the concentration camp?
DEMLER: A couple of things. If you didn’t know how to before, you learned to pray. And we knew we needed the will to live to make it. And I have carried that on through my life. You need the will to live and to succeed.
Q: So there was a spiritual connection despite all the evil around you.
DEMLER: Yes, absolutely. You need something to hold on to. Nowadays a lot of people don’t pray. But I maintain you need prayer to succeed.
Q: Dan, has this experience of making the film changed or challenged your life?
HAYES: I was talking with a couple of my friends last night at dinner, and that subject came up. We realized the freedoms and opportunities we have in this country. Sometimes … a lot of times, we take those freedoms for granted. When you see that picture of Joe on the cover of Life, weighing only 70 pounds, doing everything he can to stay alive, it makes you realize that often we aggrandize the trivial. I worry if my iPhone isn’t working right. So this adventure has given me a perspective on life and what I have in this awesome country.
Q: What improvements could be made to make it easier for returning vets from today’s wars?
HAYES: I think the reason Joe liked talking to me was because I actually listened. So ask yourself, are you really listening to vets and what they went through? Sometimes they won’t tell you about the hardships. But listen anyway.
DEMLER: When something happens to you to change your whole outlook on life, then things don’t mean that much to you. It’s people who matter. And if you try to help other people, like so many people have helped me, you find true meaning.
Q: Where can people see the film?
HAYES: It’s been broadly released on cable on Video on Demand. It’s currently available on VOD via SnagFilms. The DVD is coming out on June 4. If your readers want to go to www.honorflightthemovie.com/, they can get the information. And I hope they will.
Q: Joe, you’ve lived through a great deal and seen so many changes in our country. Where do you sense the nation is heading, morally and culturally?
DEMLER: Morally, I fear we’re going in the opposite direction. But I think things will eventually turn around.
Q: There’s that optimism.
DEMLER: I think this present recession has caused many to think spiritually.
HAYES: I’m an optimist too, but I do think we are in a tough spot here. That’s why I gravitated to this story. This is a positive, uplifting story, the kind that forces you to examine your principles, and what makes our country amazing. I’m optimistic, but more people need to remind themselves of what our country is all about. Joe’s generation is an unbelievable role model for people my age. I’m 30. If people my age learn from people like Joe, we can straighten out the country.
So why should you see Honor Flight?
Some were drafted during that second Great War, some freely enlisted. Each gave up so much in order to defeat a cancer that threatened to destroy the soul of man. Their sacrifice should be depicted, and therefore, remembered. The filmmakers attempt to pay tribute to those who survived the horrors of war, and to those who gave the last true measure of devotion.
“Making the film, we learned that this was a generation that gives,” the filmmakers said in the press notes. “They made unbelievable sacrifices in an unavoidable war and then came back and as civilians and taught us the importance of family, hard work and keeping a positive attitude in life.”
Honor Flight contains the most moving climax I’ve seen in movies. When Joe and the others returned home from Washington, they were met at the terminal and throughout the airport by a throng of between 6,000-8,000 people, reaching out, saluting and thanking these men. It is a screen moment you will not forget, for it gives us hope and reminds us that “Every day is a bonus.”
Rated PG, Honor Flight is aimed at teens and up. Though we see some archival film footage of wartime atrocities, the film is not exploitive, and these scenes merely remind us of the horrors the world faced during that period. It is devoid of crude or profane language.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – In addition to writing for Baptist Press, Phil Boatwright reviews films for www.previewonline.org. He is also a regular contributor to “The World and Everything In It,” a weekly radio program from WORLD News Group.)