Julian Plaster, a member of American Legion Post 23 in Milwaukee, takes in the World War II Memorial during an Honor Flight trip.

Legionnaires featured in ‘Honor Flight’ documentary

Two Wisconsin Legionnaires are featured in "Honor Flight," a documentary about the program that transports World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to personally see the memorial that was constructed in their honor.

"Honor Flight" won the award for Best Documentary Feature during the recent GI Film Festival in Washington. 

"I (financially) contributed to the World War II Memorial from a letter in the mail but thought I would never see it," said Julian Plaster, a member of American Legion Post 23 in Milwaukee. "But my daughter read about Honor Flight. She filled out the application and one day they called. And I went to see it."

Plaster’s trip was one of three Honor Flight Wisconsin outings that organizer Joe Dean put together and were filmed as part of the documentary. The heartwarming movie details how a Midwest community of volunteers worked together to honor World War II veterans with a trip to a memorial that signifies freedom, patriotism, service and respect to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The documentary also shows the range of emotions expressed by the veterans and their loved ones.

The other three veterans featured in the documentary are:

  •  Joe Demler, a member of Legion Post 82 in Port Washington, Wis. Demler, who was a track athlete in high school, was captured in the Battle of the Bulge. When he 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."
  • Harvey Kurz, who saw the flag raised at the Battle of Iwo Jima, now works in a grocery store bagging goods for customers unaware of his connection to history.
  • Orville Lemke, a former plumber and a father of nine who is battling terminal cancer in the film.

Thanks to the movie, Plaster has become a bit of a celebrity.

"It’s very humbling," he said. "I don’t feel I deserve that much. I got a little saying, ‘The heroes are the ones who didn’t come back.’ I am very honored that people invite me to a luncheon, or to a school, and I talk to the students. I am very honored with that attention."

The documentary debuted Aug. 11, 2012, in Miller Park (home to the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team) where about 30,000 people watched. Visit www.honorflightthemovie.com/see-the-film/ to see a schedule for upcoming screenings near you. To view the film at home, there are two options starting May 14 — the documentary is available on iTunes and through cable companies on video on-demand via SnagFilms.

The documentary project traces its roots back to 2009 when director Dan Hayes, who is from Wisconsin but lives in Washington, went to the memorial to see another Honor Flight group. Instantly, he knew that he was on to something.

"The first guy I interviewed said, ‘I could die a happy man now that I made this trip.’ That made a big impression on me. That response was filled with sincerity and emotion," Hayes said. "I filmed him and filmed (other Honor Flight veterans) for the rest of the day. I had no idea what Honor Flight was but at the end of the day, I knew this was the best stuff I ever filmed. So inspirational, so emotional."

Hayes, who worked for ReasonTV at the time, put together a five-minute clip and posted it on YouTube. "We got more reaction to it than anything I did in the past two years." That reaction encouraged Hayes to quit his job and go "all in" to make the documentary. He secured funding by winning a video contest and by receiving donations from Milwaukee-based nonprofits and individuals. And throughout the process, Hayes and his team focused on one crucial aspect — the veterans.

"For us it was a question of ‘Are we doing the best job we can to capture this story?’ " Hayes said. "These men and women are getting older. We’re not going to have a chance to capture this story again, we might as well pull out all the stops. We might as well go on the trips, two or three times, and rent as much gear as we could whether we could afford it or not. To honor veterans the best way possible, we went all in on this project."

The veterans and their families remain grateful to Honor Flight for the opportunity. But Hayes, Dean and the volunteers were motivated by an endearing sense of gratitude.

"We’re grateful for everyone’s service and grateful that a lot of people found out about Honor Flights through their Legion posts," Hayes said. "A lot of guys are hesitant at first but other guys come back to the next Legion meeting and say, ‘It was great,’ and then others decide to go ahead and go the next time. I’m thankful for the freedom they’ve given me, and thankful for the freedom they gave me to make films."

Follow the film on its on Facebook page: www.facebook.com/HonorFlightTheMovie