"Honor Flight," a new documentary about the program that takes World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to view the memorial that was constructed in their honor, features two Wisconsin Legionnaires — Julian Plaster and Joe Demler.
Plaster, a member of Post 23 in Milwaukee, joined the Navy in 1942. On Dec. 7, 1941, Plaster was working as a lumberjack in Canada and didn't learn about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor until months later. After training, he was assigned to burial patrol on Roi-Namur Island in the Marshall Islands.
Joe Demler, a member of Legion Post 82 in Port Washington, Wis., was captured in the Battle of the Bulge. When Demler was liberated from a German POW camp, he weighed 70 pounds and was photographed in Life Magazine as the "Human Skeleton." In the film, he says he learned two things in captivity: "How to pray in a Nazi prison camp. And every day is a bonus."
"Honor Flight" won Best Documentary Feature during the GI Film Festival in May. The film details how a Midwest community of volunteers worked together to honor World War II veterans with a trip to the memorial, and it shows the range of emotions expressed by the veterans and their loved ones.
The American Legion spoke with Plaster about his service, the memorial and the movie:
Q: What was your first war experience?
A: I was in a landing craft with 15 other sailors when we got on a beach. They gave us a shovel and gloves and said, ‘Start digging and bury the dead.' I thought I would be going to war to be a hero, and here I was burying the dead: American and Japanese. We buried the dead for three to four days. War is horrible. When I was burying the dead, I was burying a Japanese soldier who was clutching a photograph of a woman. His thoughts were at home, the same as mine. The smell of the dead stayed with me for years; every once in awhile I get a sense of what the smell was like.
Q: How was your World War II Memorial visit?
A: The first time I went to see it (with Honor Flight), it was so huge and I felt so small. Then I went back last December with an Honor Flight and when I walked down to the memorial, I felt the same way. For my third time, I was on the inside looking out through the pillars in a circle. I was standing in the center and to me I was thinking there were two big arms that were reaching out to me, and I felt like I belonged there.
Q: What was it like to attend the documentary's premiere?
A: That was amazing. After the show, people stopped me wanting my autograph or to take photos with me. It was humbling. They thanked me for my service and thought the film was wonderful.
The whole world depended on the U.S. to save them (during World War II). When people thank me for my service, I am humbled. I represent the 16 million who served in World War II. When they thank me, I take the thanks for the 16 million. It was a job. We – the generations that were raised in the ‘30s and ‘40s - were looking for a job. When we entered the service, it was a job. When we came back home and the job was done, we packed up and looked for another job.
Q: What else do you want people to know?
A: We cannot forget the people who served after World War II and the servicemen (and women) we have now. We always seem to forget the mothers, fathers, husbands, wives and their kids. When someone goes off to war, they (family members) suffer a great deal, too.
Visit the Legion's web page dedicated to honor and remembrance: www.legion.org/honor