Marine Corps veteran David Heath has seen a lot over his 94 years. One of his most vivid memories, he says, was during World War II, when he engaged in bitter fighting against Japanese troops as part of the Guadalcanal campaign, a series of ground and naval battles that lasted from August 1942 to February 1943.
Heath, part of a dwindling population of World War II veterans who are still alive and able to tell their story, arrived Wednesday in New Orleans to share his experiences at the National World War II Museum. As his plane landed, hundreds gathered at Louis Armstrong International Airport to show their appreciation.
Heath was traveling with about 50 other veterans of World War II, and the crowd wasn’t shy about showing its excitement.
Museum volunteers, local politicians, airport travelers and even several youth baseball teams waved American flags, blew kisses, gave congratulations and even chanted “USA! USA! USA!” as the veterans walked or were brought by wheelchair into the American Airlines waiting area of Concourse C.
“I never expected anything like this in all my life,” Heath said, as a Dixieland band played “God Bless America.”
The welcoming event was part of the Soaring Valor initiative, put on by the Gary Sinise Foundation and the National WWII Museum in order to preserve stories of World War II veterans. As part of the project, actor Sinise paid for a group of 55 veterans from southern California to tour New Orleans and the museum that honors their service.
“These are our living heroes from the World War II generation. They have their own national museum here in New Orleans, and so many of them don’t get to see their own museum,” Sinise said as he helped the veterans onto a bus that would take them to their hotel.
Over the next two days, the veterans are slated to explore the museum along with Sinise and participate in luncheons and dinners in their honor.
Sinise has shared the significance of the World War II Museum for his family. His uncle, who was a navigator on a B-17 Flying Fortress and flew 30 missions over Europe, was part of the museum’s oral history collection.
When his uncle died at age 90, Sinise said, it was “comforting” to know that his stories were preserved in the institution.
“That’s what this is all about. Many of them will share their stories for us, so the next generation and the generation after that can understand the cost of freedom,” Sinise said about the veterans who arrived by plane Wednesday. “We can never do enough for them, as far as I’m concerned.”
In a news release, museum President and CEO Gordon “Nick” Mueller spoke to the urgency of the Soaring Valor initiative, explaining that while 16 million Americans served in World War II, that number has dwindled to fewer than a million still alive.
“Every time we lose a veteran, it’s like losing a library,” Mueller said. “All of those memories and firsthand experiences are gone.”
To further preserve those stories, the Gary Sinise Foundation is also funding a full-time historian to work with the museum’s oral history outreach program in recording the memories of veterans.
The historian will travel the country to add to the museum’s library of nearly 8,000 oral histories, which capture the voices of people who experienced the WWII era. The stories often inform museum exhibits because they help historians draw larger conclusions about specific events, Mueller said.
The project also will pay for veterans to attend the opening of the museum’s Road to Tokyo/Campaign of Courage Pavilion, which is due to be unveiled Dec. 10, according to the initiative’s project manager, Tom Gibbs.
“We want to show as much gratitude as we can for this greatest generation,” Gibbs said.
At the airport, gratitude was the underlying theme among the several groups who had gathered to see the veterans arrive, including motorcyclist groups, members of the U.S. armed forces and others.
“We have to honor the sacrifices these guys made. They just put everything on the line for our freedom,” said 69-year-old Lucky Rogers, a veteran himself, a motorcyclist and the owner of a mechanic shop on the West Bank.
Rogers, who served in the Navy from 1964 to 1968 and is a member of the Patriot Guard Rider Motorcycle group, added that today’s younger generations need to learn the value of what was won in World War II.
“Freedom ain’t free, as they say,” Rogers said. “We should all be soldiers of history.”