Worthy Of Honor
Today marks the final Honor Flight with exclusively WWII vets. The homecoming is tonight around 8:30 at Mitchell International. I plan to be there at the gate to welcome the heroes home one last time.
The day that changed his life started out badly for filmmaker Dan Hayes.
He woke up from a troubled sleep after breaking up with his girlfriend the day before.
And then his father, Stephen Hayes of Wauwatosa, called him in Washington, D.C., to say a bunch of old veterans from Wisconsin were in D.C. visiting war memorials and that Dan should go talk to them.
The younger Hayes remembers rolling his eyes at his father’s suggestion. But, because he had nothing better to do, he picked up a video camera and headed over to the World War II Memorial.
It was November 2009.
The first vet he found was Theodore Gurzynski, and Hayes remembers asking him a softball question like “Hey, how’s it going?”
Gurzynski looked at Hayes, blinked back tears, and said “I could die a happy man now that I’ve made this trip.”
And Hayes was hooked.
As the veterans prepared to leave the monument on a chartered bus, one of them suggested Hayes join them. He did.
“I shot seven-and-a-half hours of film that day — the best, most inspiring stuff I’ve ever shot,” he says. “It completely changed my life.”
The film Hayes shot that day would eventually become part of the movie “Honor Flight,” which premiered in Milwaukee last summer before the largest movie audience ever assembled: 28,442 people jammed into Miller Park.
And it’s a pretty good bet that there were few dry eyes in the house when the film ended and the credits rolled.
Hayes’ film tells the story of Wisconsin’s Honor Flight program, which takes World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorial that opened in 2004 in their honor. It recounts the stories of the volunteers who organize and finance the flights and those who accompany the vets on their trip. All are mindful that time is running out because 900 WWII vets die every day. (Similar honor programs operate in almost every other state.)
But more importantly, “Honor Flight” chronicles the stories of the vets themselves: the 16 million young Americans who went to war when their country asked them to, and how, in the words of the film, “they saved the whole world.” And how they came home and went to work and seldom told anyone about what they’d seen and suffered through.
One such Wisconsin vet is a Port Washington man named Joe Demler. He was captured by the Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge and sent to a prison camp. By the time he was rescued, he weighed less than 75 pounds. Life magazine published his picture and called him “the human skeleton.”
Hayes says the film is about “freedom, but it’s about perspective, too. How a lot of the things we worry about and care about are nothing compared to what these guys lived through.”
Hayes, 30, grew up in Wauwatosa, graduating from that city’s East High School in 2001. He then earned a degree in mass communications at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
After graduation, he made a film about the university glee club and sent it to Reason TV, which produces libertarian films. They offered him a job in Washington making short documentaries.
Hayes says politically he’s more libertarian than conservative. “One summer in high school I discovered Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and that pretty much settled it,” he says.
No doubt he absorbed some conservative ideology just sitting around the kitchen table: His older brother is Stephen Hayes, a columnist for the conservative Weekly Standard and the author of a biography of Dick Cheney.
The younger Hayes edited those first few hours of film about the Honor Flight into a five-minute video, which he posted on Reason TV’s website. It got 35,000 views and generated more e-mail than he’d ever received before.
But the Honor Flight story wasn’t done with him yet. He couldn’t stop thinking about the veterans, about how impossibly young most of them were when they marched off to war. “We knew we had something cool,” he says.
Eventually, Hayes told his friend Clay Broga: “I gotta quit my job and make this movie.” Broga agreed to do the same.