"It was one of the biggest days of my life," World War II veteran Joe Demler said, reflecting on the trip he took to Washington, D.C. in 2008.
Demler, a Port Washington resident, is one of the nearly 1,400 individuals from southeastern Wisconsin that has participated in the Honor Flight program that takes veterans to visit the WWII Memorial in Washington. His trip was made possible by the program’s Port Washington-based chapter, Stars and Stripes Honor Flight.
A former member of the Army’s 35th Division, Demler participated in the Battle of the Bulge, a month-long German offensive that began in December 1944. Few members of his division survived the battle, he said, and Demler himself was taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans.
After the house he was stationed in was attacked, Demler was packed into a train with countless other men, and they were kept in the rail car for four days without food or water. He was then taken to a Nazi prison camp to endure worse conditions.
Upon being freed, Demler was near death from starvation.
After being liberated from the atrocious conditions of the camp, Demler coined the idea that "every day is a bonus."
Now, Demler’s and other local veterans’ stories are being compiled into a documentary set to premier this December, titled, "The Story of Stars and Stripes Honor Flight."
Stars and Stripes Honor Flight is a branch of the National Honor Flight Network that was started in Wisconsin by Port Washington resident and Alderman Joe Dean.
The National Honor Flight Network started in 2004 when Earl Morse, a physician’s assistant working at a veteran's clinic in Ohio, was talking to his veteran patients about the possibility of them visiting the WWII Memorial in Washington D.C. that was completed and dedicated in May 2004, according to the Stars and Stripes' website. Most patients said they didn't have the money or the physical ability to get there by themselves, so Morse decided to do something about the problem.
Being the son of a World War II veteran himself, Dean felt the urge to start the program in Wisconsin after learning about it on a television program. All it took was one night of sleep before Dean said he started to work on organizing a team of people to launch the Stars and Stripes branch. The Port branch launched in 2008, and now there are also four other branches in Wisconsin participating in the program.
Of the program, Dean said, "Hands down the most rewarding experience has been spending time with WWII veterans."
Dean and his crew of volunteers, which includes Demler, raise money to send the men and women of WWII to the capital by hosting several fundraising events each year, including a golf outing and a gala.
In addition, Demler and other veterans travel to schools to share their stories with the next generation.
Dean said that their heroic stories "really come alive in person" when the veterans visit the schools.
These compelling stories are what drew filmmaker Dan Hayes to the program back in 2009.
Hayes learned one afternoon that a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight group was going to be in Washington — where Hayes works as a video producer. He explained that since he didn’t have any engagements that day, he decided to visit the memorial with his camera.
"I thought, 'What a powerful experience, I need to capture this on film,'" he said.
That day in November 2009, Hayes collected stories from the veterans and shortly thereafter he cut together a five-minute film about the men. However, he soon realized there was greater potential.
“There’a a lot more to the story than a five minute piece,” he said.
In 2010, Hayes began working on the documentary. He participated in three Stars and Stripes Honor Flights where the veterans "really opened up" and shared their stories. Soon, Hayes had over 100 hours of footage, and now he's working on compiling it into a full-length documentary.
After working on the project for months, Hayes explained that it has had a profound effect on him.
“It’s forced me to reflect on my freedom everyday,” he said. “People today, my generation especially, take it for granted.”
Now, Hayes is making this his goal with the film: to have viewers appreciate the freedom for which men like Demler fought.
Dean hopes to see the film released December 7, which is also National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.