GRANITE FALLS, Minn. — Veteran’s Day events splashed across America on Nov. 11. Each with special tributes to U.S. military veterans wherever they have served. I’m a veteran myself. However, in my many years of attendance at these commemorative events, my visit to the 66th annual Veteran’s Day celebration at the Fagen Fighters World War II museum on Nov. 11 tops the list!
Many of you have visited this magnificent display at the Granite Falls airport created by Ron Fagen. It’s a tremendous history lesson. However, when you are there taking in the show at this Veteran’s Day celebration, you sense the tingling in your own body. After brief introductory comments by Yellow Medicine East Middle/High School Principal Ryan Luft and a kind welcome by Ron and Diane Fagen, the crowd of 600 people were asked to stand for the Advancement of the Colors.
Sharply dressed in their military uniforms, the VFW/American Legion honor guard proceeded to lead 62 honored veterans into this spacious museum. Everyone was standing at attention and feeling proud. When the U.S. flag was slowly marched into this arena — accompanied with the cadence of a high school drum corps — our country America takes on special significance.
We continued standing as Boy Scout Troop 269 led us in the Pledge of Allegiance, quickly followed by the Yellow Medicine East Concert Band with a sparkling presentation of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Yes, everyone was indeed now in a commemorative and appreciative mood!
I asked Ron Fagen about the history of this salute to Veterans. Said Fagen, “We’ve been doing this for a few years. We’ve got a facility big enough to handle a sizeable crowd, so doing this for our local VFW and American Legion seemed logical.”
Indeed, there is some military history in the Fagen family. Ron’s dad was a WWII veteran; Ron is a Vietnam veteran; his brother a Korean War veteran.
I said to Ron, “You seem to have a heart that keeps on giving.” He simply responded, “I just want to give back. We appreciate what all the Veterans have done for America and the sacrifices for their families.”
The backdrop for this Veterans Day program included the many artifacts on display at the museum — including a German boxcar shipped over from Germany. Inside the crowded boxcar are mannequins depicting American GI POWs. Outside the boxcar, two German militia members are standing guard.
A nearby kiosk displays this narrative: “For you the war is over. Imagine your plane has been shot down. You have parachuted into enemy territory. What happens now? Allied airman tried to evade German forces for as long as possible. With help, some were able to hide for months. Upon capture German soldiers told POWs, ‘For you the war is over.’ They boarded trains for a central interrogation facility in Frankfurt, Germany. After seven days of solitary confinement and daily interrogations, they boarded trains for POW Camps. They had become KRIEGIES, German shorthand for prisoners of war. What was it like to be a POW? Captured soldiers slept in crowded barracks living on meager rations supplemented by Red Cross deliveries. Most struggled to fill their time as they waited for the war to end. For the first POWs the wait lasted years. To keep busy they organized sports teams; others staged plays; still others planned how they were going to attempt their escape from this camp. This note: Prior to the Battle of the Bulge, two-thirds of American POWs were airmen shot down as they were flying missions to bomb Germany.”
Another display about German trains in WWII reads: “The Nazis used any and all available boxcars for their war effort. When moving Jews, POWs and other targeted groups, box cars were filled well beyond capacity for journeys that lasted days — taking them to uncertain and terrifying destinations. This box car you are looking at transported POWs and Jews destined to holocaust camps. In 2015 Fagen Fighters Word War II Museum brought the box car here to tell the stories of those who rode it.”
Anyone who is familiar with the Fagan museums know you see aircraft hanging from the rafters. I asked Ron about a German fighter plane hanging in southeast corner. “That’s a German ME109. The Messerschmitt. That’s the enemy.”
Ron has his own P51 U.S. military fighter plane. Each summer, a two-day air show with scads of visiting aircraft show up. Plus, Ron’s military craft also take to the air. Often a B17 WWII bomber makes a guest appearance.
Luft said this is the fifth year his students have participated. “We used to have Veterans Day in our high school gym, but we’d have only about 8 to 10 veterans show up. But out here we’re averaging between 50 and 60 veterans. And this event is now a highlight for our community and for our students. You’ll see the pride in our students. At the end of the ceremony, our 400 students here today will line up along the east wall and shake the hand of every veteran as they leave. Our students enjoy this opportunity. And our veterans love this personal touch from each of our students.”
Luft said this prior week students and staff helped prep for this event. “And today you’ll hear seven students share the speeches each wrote. The topic was ‘Why a Veteran.’ So a lot of the students sat down with their parents or family members who were in service to get some thoughts on military service. The class of 27 students each wrote up their speech. Seven were selected for presentation here today.”
The speeches were delivered by Ameli Blue-Ochoa, Andrew Flaten, Hope For, Jaselen Jimenez, Kaylee Luepker, Madasy Ludwig, Delaney Myers and Isabella Shultz.
Luft is not a veteran, but his dad was and is currently the commander of the American Legion post in Curry, Minn.
VFW Commander Matt Martin told about and single empty chair up front and the small table with a plate holding only a slice of lemon and a sprinkling of salt. “This a reminder of the many veterans killed in action but unaccounted for. Note the small MIA flag — Missing In Action. The slice of lemon reminds us of the bitter taste POW’s might have experienced; the sprinkled salt a reminder of the many family and friends left to wait. The empty chair speaks for itself. That veteran no longer is with us. Let us never forget the sacrifices of many of your military people.”
An opening prayer was offered by Pastor Paul Drees of the Granite Falls Lutheran Church.
The event’s guest speaker was Minnesota Air National Guard Master Sgt. Ashley Wilkins who grew up on a farm just three miles away. Her granddad was Allard Stevens, a World War II veteran whose story is among those shared in a museum video. She was a junior at Yellow Medicine East High School on Sept. 11, 2001. She told her audience reading and hearing about the terrorist attack on two sky scrapers, plus her grandfathers’ example of service to country solidified her decision to serve. She enlisted on Sept. 27, 2002 — just days after turning 17. And she reminded the students in attendance that her military experience helped earn money for college.
Wilkins now has nearly 18 years of military service. “I appreciated the sense of belonging and serving. I never felt I needed to change to meet military standards. It continues to be an enjoyable and financially rewarding work.”
Two Yellow Medicine East band members, Marcus Niemeyer and Quinton Staab, climbed a circular metal stairway to a second deck to present the penetrating trumpet sounds of “Taps.” The VFW/American Legion honor guard then proceeded with a Retirement of the Colors and this most remarkable event was history.