DALLAS, NEW ORLEANS (CBS11) – How do you begin to say ‘thank you,’ to someone who helped change the course of the world?
Last week, 40 North Texas World War II veterans, were paired up with high school juniors in the Grapevine-Colleyville school district for a chance to pass down history.
Operation Soaring Valor departed DFW Airport on a mission that none of them will ever forget.
Among the first words spoken to 17-year-old Will Heinberg, was this.
“It won’t be many years before there won’t be many World War II warriors left. We’ll all be gone.”
Hard words for this 17-year-old to hear from a man he barely knows. Even harder for those facing that reality. All these men who have gathered at Gate C 2 are now in the 90’s. Things move slower. The walk is not as steady as it once was, but the beautiful thing, is that their memories, are as sharp as the day they began their service to this nation.
The entire Soaring Valor trip, is the brainchild of actor and vet supporter Gary Sinise. We’ve long watched Mr. Sinise in movies and TV series. We’ve all seen him supporting troops and veterans seemingly at every turn. For those who wonder whether it’s all genuine, I can tell you having spent two days with him, what you see, is what you get. He’s the real deal, and the care and kindness he shows veterans on this trip, is honestly more than one might even expect.
Sinise’s vision is simple.
Take this group of North Texas heroes on a trip to thank them. To the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which by the way, if you’ve not been there, and you love history, put this one on your bucket list.
As we depart, it’s 40 veterans, each matched with a student. One on one. Three days in total. The living history of an American hero, getting passed down to the next generation. By the time we get to New Orrleans, Will Heinberg is already an encyclopedia on his veteran.
“I know he was in the 66th Infantry Division, which is the Army Ordinance Division.”
When our men arrived at the museum, more than 100 people lined the walkway that chilly morning. “Thank you,” over and over. “We appreciate you.” Words so easy to say, but these people chose to be here, on this day, to make sure these men heard those words.
Inside, during a 40 minute movie that sets up the entire visit to the museum, there is much talk about the D-Dday invasion of June 6, 1944. That’s when I first meet former Army Private George Ciampa. He arrived on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion. Ciampa, was part of a small group of men, whose task it was, to gather the bodies of the 2,400 American fighters who were lost that first 24 hours on that bloody beach. I asked him how he felt when he arrived.
“I was 18 years old. I weighed 112 pounds. I was a skinny little kid, scared to death. Couldn’t swim. I was afraid I was gonna drown. I kept thinking of my mother,” said Ciampa.
As the men made their way into the artifacts room, an explosion of memories. Wyes lit up, as they got to pick up, show and share with the teenagers exactly the clothing they wore during the war. Most were surprised by how heavy everything was. I could see the students, processing the fact that these men, wore very heavy clothes, carried very heavy sacks, for days, weeks, months on end. It was hard for them to process that. All of this, visually, including an impressive display of the weapons these men used to save the world, was far better than any history book Kat Bonneveir has ever read.
“You know, but you don’t really understand until you experience it with them,” said Bonneveir. “Like he was telling me how heavy his uniform was, and you touch it and you feel it, and you knew before , but you truly understand now.”
I watched Fiske Hanley point out on a map of Japan, to student Savannah Carroll, the exact spot he bailed out of his burning B-29 Bomber. But when he then shared his story of over four months in a Japanese POW camp, and the beatings he took to within an inch of his life, it was a moment that made us all pause.
“I faced a firing squad,” said Hanley. “I faced death, certain death. 14 times. and he (God) saved me.”
Every turn, Every exhibit, brought a rush of memories.
One of the biggest, and most poignant, the lives lost.
World War II took an enormous toll. Counting all the casualties of all nations involved, the price of that was 65 million lives in six years. It’s hard to try and even wrap your mind around it.
For Elisabeth Sones, a grateful heart for the lessons and history being passed down into her care. She told me she learned so much during this journey, especially about why america is the free land it is today. She told me she is forever indebted to these men.
Our heroes from World War II never ask for anything. But having spent so much time with them over the years, the one thing deep in their hearts, is the hope that we simply remember them. The service. The sacrifice.
Will these kids remember? I think so. They’ve known each other only days, but I can already see that deep friendships have formed.
On the flight home, mail call confirms their humble hope of simply being remembers. Hand-written letters from those who now hold their legacy.
The men these kids had never met.
Now, the men they will never forget.
“Thank you for giving me hope, for the future. You are truly the Greatest Generation,” read one of the veterans aloud.