Milwaukee veterans featured in new Honor Flight documentary
When he was 20 years old, Orville Lemke helped saved the world. And for 65 years, it didn't seem that many people had noticed.
The Milwaukee native was drafted into the 28th Infantry Division in 1944 during the twilight of World War II, a conflict that some historians say gave birth to the modern United States as a superpower.
For two years Lemke worked as a communication specialist on the European front. He was wounded by German shrapnel in 1945. All records of this injury were lost in a fire and, despite eight years of letter-writing, when Lemke died in 2010 he had still not received the Purple Heart due to soldiers wounded in the line of duty.
All the United States Army has is Lemke's word. And, unfortunately, one soldier cannot move Congress.
But thanks to the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight and the care of his daughter Ann Rasmusson, two months before his death Lemke did get to see the memorial at the nation's capitol which had been built in his honor – and in honor of the 16 million American men and women who fought in World War II.
"I don't know what the right word to use to describe that day," said Rasmusson, who accompanied her father on the trip to Washington, D.C. "Amazing doesn't even begin to cover it."
Lemke and Rasmusson participated in one of the Stars and Stripes' "Honor Flights," which ferry veterans to the nation's capitol for a whirlwind day-long trip to visit the World War II monument and other landmarks.
Lemke's journey is one of several shown in Freethink Media's new feature-length documentary "Honor Flight," which will make its world premiere at Miller Park on Aug. 11. Freethink filmmakers Dan Hayes and Clay Broga chronicle the work of Stars and Stripes Honor Flights, Inc., a non-profit group in Southeastern Wisconsin run entirely by volunteers.
The mission of Stars and Stripes is to let the veterans of Wisconsin know that a nation is grateful to them, says the website. And the mission of the documentary is to preserve the legacies of those veterans for a nation facing an uncertain future.
"Part of this effort, for us, is to chronicle these stories before they die with them – to be blunt," said Broga. It is estimated that close to 1,000 members of what is often called "the Greatest Generation" are dying each day.
"At a bigger level we view it (the film) as sort of symbolic," Broga added. "You ask people how they view the direction of the country and you use those polling numbers and it's really quite negative. You see these guys – the Greatest Generation – and they're dying.
"And it's like, our county's going this direction people are not feeling positive about and these guys represent greatness for us – so what happens when they're gone? Are their values going to do with them?"
Lemke's Honor Flight took place on Nov. 6, 2010. He died less than two months later, on Christmas Eve. Rasmusson and her family are unwilling to let her father's values die with him. They have kept up the letter-writing campaign to secure his long-awaited Purple Heart, and they will attend the Field of Honor event – along with 160 of their closest friends.
Rasmusson has not seen the full documentary yet but said she does not know how she is going to wait till Aug. 11.
"I wondered what my dad would think of all this," she said. "On the way home from the preview of the movie last December I was saying to my husband and son, 'Do you think he'd be happy? Do you think he'd be proud or mad over all the attention?' And just as I asked that question I saw a falling star. And I said to my husband, 'Greg, there's the answer!' He's happy. He's proud."
When Lemke made the honor flight he was fighting a losing battle with prostate cancer. Rasmusson says the experience gave her father peace in his final weeks.
"Making that flight and going on it, for him, helped in the last weeks of his life to cope with knowing that there was nothing more the doctors could do," she said. "He was in hospice care at home and he had visitors – and it wasn't sad visits. It was visits of 'Let's share my Honor Flight DVD so everyone can see what we did that day!'"
In the documentary trailer, which Broga said has gotten 4.5 million views all over the internet, Lemke is shown returning from the Honor Flight. The homecomings are always packed with friends, relatives and citizens wanting to show gratitude to the veterans – a sort of ticker-tape parade, almost seventy years postponed.
In the scene, Rasmusson pushes Lemke's wheelchair through the crowd and a young boy reaches out eagerly to shake his hand, as if he was a sports star or a celebrity.
"The flight was something for him to talk about in the last weeks, something he was happy about, that he was proud of and he felt just honored to be a part of," said Rasmusson.
She is pleased that her father's status as an American hero – along with his fellow veterans – is being preserved in the film.
"I think that the Freethink team will do it justice as far as relaying the stories accurately," she said. "I opened up to them and I don't regret it. I completely trust that they will tell the story that needs to be told."
Telling the story is what it's all about for Hayes and Broga. Hayes is a native of Wisconsin and his father was the one who initially suggested focusing on the Stars and Stripes team and their mission.
"The story is local in that regard," said Broga. "But we're hoping that this is going to be a big national campaign and message. People want that sense of what it means to be American and appreciate life and what we have, and see greatness in our lives. Now is a really important time for that message."
On Aug. 3 Joe Dean, director of Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, announced that over 30,000 tickets had already been sold to the Field of Honor event, unofficially breaking the Guinness Book of World Records for a movie premiere. An adjudicator from the Guinness Book of World Records will fly in to judge whether the event has officially broken the record or not.
"We need people to STAY through the credits or they will be deducted from the total," Dean said in an email. "And we have an AWESOME post-movie, 15-minute program."
He called the Field of Honor "an event of a generation."
"We will NEVER be doing this again with WWII heroes," he said. "One dies every 90 seconds in this country... (it is) literally the chance of a lifetime to be in the 'arena' with these heroes!"
But for Rasmusson, it's not about the record or even the ticket sales. It's about her father, and preserving on film the day she stood at his side as he received a little bit of the credit due to him.
Her son Jake, 16, is an avid World War II history buff.
"In early 2000 my dad started to talk to Jake about the war and share information with him. Jake would sit on my dad's lap as he talked," she recalled. "Jake was pretty young when that happened so he doesn't have the benefit of understanding exactly what Grandpa was relaying to him. But Grandpa sure does have a special place in his heart."
But now that his grandfather's story has been captured on film, Jake Rasmusson's grandchildren can watch as their ancestor's heroism inspires others.
Broga said that was the whole point.
"It's funny because the story is about the vets but it's also about the community. The community comes off as a character in this," he said. "When we ask people who their favorite character is, they say Ann. They're so touched by what she did for her father. I think she resonates with a lot of people.
"The people that are watching this in many cases are not vets and they felt that what Ann was doing – either they didn't get a chance to do it, or more broadly it opens up all those emotions we have about being a good family member. Am I there for my friends and family like I should be? Am I living in an honorable and respectful way?"
The documentary shows that Lemke was one of the lucky ones – he had a family who was proud of his service and a grandson who drank in the stories of his heroism. Not all World War II veterans have that luxury.
"It's tough when you think about senior citizens and folks that are sort of in the last chapter of their lives," said Broga. "They tend to be kind of forgotten and kind of looked past. One of our main characters in the film is Harvey Kurz, who bags groceries. We have these shots of people just walking past him. You're walking past a guy that saw the flag go up and Iwo Jima!
"You forget you look down at old people all the time. Part of our message is just stop and look around you and think a little bit more. So long story short, for the vets, they're coming from kind of being ignored to being celebrated."
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