By Andy Diffenderfer
A day of ceremonies capped by a re-enactment of a "death march" endured by a local World War II veteran keenly reminded visitors Saturday of the many sacrifices made by our nation's military.
The events at the Veterans of All Wars Museum in Chickamauga, Ga., according to museum founder Robert Honeycutt, were aimed at honoring veterans and shedding light on the brutal march, an event "99 percent of people don't know about," he said.
After his aircraft was shot down May 29, 1944, Mr. Honeycutt was captured and survived an 86-day, 800-mile journey that began in northern Poland and was marked by starvation, rampant disease and unforgiving weather. The Rossville resident chronicled his experiences in a book titled "The Eleventh Man" and said the ordeal left an indelible impression.
"It never leaves me," he said before a group of about 20 re-enactors, mostly students, played out the scene. "I won't ever forget it. I'll die with it."
Mr. Honeycutt, 87, was with the Army Air Corps and reached the rank of staff sergeant. He joined in 1942 and was discharged in 1945.
Robert Clark, a retired master sergeant who served 30 years in the Marine Corps, urged visitors Saturday to "remember your veterans because they gave to their country all they could give. We'll never forget them."
"You can learn more about how your country is free today," said Mr. Clark, 83, a Ringgold, Ga., resident who joined the Marines in 1945 and served mostly in the Pacific. "You learn that freedom isn't free, that the hard-fought battles we fought during World War II are the reason we're free today."
"We should never forget the past, and we should never, ever forget the fact they fought for our freedom," said Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell.
The day also included a flag-raising ceremony conducted by the Chattanooga chapter of Rolling Thunder, an organization whose mission is to publicize POW-MIA issues.
The museum opened in 2008 at the Peerless Woolen Mills site in Rossville and moved to its current location on the Lee and Gordon's Mills property last year. The facility contains military photos, maps, uniforms and artifacts.
The second annual re-enactment began in a parking area just down the street from the museum and concluded on the museum and mill grounds. A German commander bellowed orders, and POWs who attempted to escape were shot before the remaining were eventually liberated.
Students who participated in the re-enactment said the experience was a way to salute veterans and learn about their noble service at the same time. Mr. Honeycutt praised the re-enactors for carrying out the scene "exactly the way it was. It brought back memories, believe me."
"They don't teach this in school," said Nick Mahan, 19, a Chattanooga State Community College student who aspires to be a history teacher. "For the average American it would be a great way to learn about World War II. I feel like when we do this, we do a credit to the men who were on this march."
"We really should thank the veterans for all they've done for our country," said Austin Weber, 14, a rising sophomore and JROTC student at Ridgeland High School. "It's a great story to learn."
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Andy Diffenderfer is based in LaFayette, Ga. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.