POLK CITY – It’s one of the most moving experiences she’s ever had, Jennifer Montague said: listening to veterans who survived being prisoners of war during World War II talk about what they endured.
But as amazing as their heroism is, she said, their modesty when talking about their courageous acts is just as remarkable.
“It’s like you’re listening to these guys and you’re getting chills, and you have tears in your eyes,” she said. “And they shrug their shoulders and just say, ‘I was doing my job.’ I haven’t found one ego or someone who said ‘I saved my country.’ There was just a sense of duty for them. They were going to defend their county, and that’s it.”
Montague is the director of events, sales and marketing at Fantasy of Flight, the aviation-themed attraction showcasing vintage aircraft from the world’s largest private collection, along with themed immersion experiences and interactive exhibits. The attraction in Polk City is about to start the final installment of this year’s Legends & Legacies Symposium Series called “The Great Escape: Heroes Underground.” On Friday and Saturday, former WWII POWs will reopen their traumatic pasts and share their inspiring stories of courage over terrible circumstances.
“The series has been wonderful, so much so that after the first year we keep expanding it, and we already have our 2012 series lined up, and we’re looking forward to a great weekend,” Montague said.
Fantasy of Flight is hosting this symposium on Friday and Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. The event features decorated POW heroes in an open-forum/question-and-answer session, followed by an autograph-signing session.
“More than 60 years ago, these men were young pilots who risked not only their lives for our country, but had their psychological boundaries tested to unimaginable limits as they were held captive behind enemy lines,” said Kim Long, general manager of Fantasy of Flight. “We’re confident our guests will be inspired by the stories they hear.”
Many already have, Montague said.
“Gosh, the POW symposium last year just blew people away,” she said. “Some of their stories are just amazing. It’s actually one of the things we’re proud to do through this Legends and Legacies Series — keeping their stories alive. This is about keeping history alive and inspiring the next generation.”
This series started in part because Fantasy of Flight became home to The Tuskegee Airmen – They Dared to Fly, an exhibit that honors were the first African American military aviators in the U.S. armed forces. During World War II, the American military was racially segregated, and the Tuskegee Airmen were subject to racial discrimination, but they still trained and flew with distinction.
”It started with our great relationship with the Tuskegee Airmen,” Montague said. “When we opened a permanent exhibit honoring the Tuskegee Airmen, we got an amazing turnout for that.”
Part of Fantasy of Flight’s mission is to find more war heroes and bring them to Central Florida. WWII pilots, soldiers, flight nurses and even Rosie the Riveters were encouraged to contact Fantasy of Flight for the Legends & Legacies Symposium Series.
“There are many amazing moments these men and ladies have to share,” Montague said. “At the rate that we’re losing these heroes, their family members are so committed to keeping their stories alive.”
It’s been estimated that worldwide, only a small fraction of the nearly 100,000 World War II POWs are alive today. Finding them to attend an event like this, she said, is increasingly difficult.
“It’s becoming more and more challenging, because of their deteriorating health and age,” Montague said. “We think we have folks lined up, and we think it’s going to happen, and then something else happens. It’s getting difficult, but we’ve been able to find some amazing people. That’s where the legacy comes in. “
This weekend, the POWS will field questions about piloting B-24s and other World War II aircraft, surviving flying trauma, and the days and weeks that followed their captures.
“We have two symposiums each day, and it’s simply come on in and we have a facilitator who asks our panelists stories about their experiences, and they tell their tales, and we do a question and answer period,” she said. “Then there’s a meet and greet session after each symposium.”
This event is being held even as the United States enters the 10th year of Operation Enduring Freedom, the official name used by the U.S. government for the War in Afghanistan. Still, even though the United States is now involved in a war, Montague said World War II was such a radically different, even unique, experience for this nation. When veterans of the war talk about it, especially to young people in the audience at Fantasy of Flight, these stories prove to be eye opening, Montague said.
“What’s really neat for me is to see the school kids,” she said. “Obviously we marketed this to school age children to keep the stories alive for their experience. To see these kids walk up to the men after hearing their stories is so inspiring. They’re waiting in line to meet them and get their picture taken with them. That’s one of the best things we can do, is to instill that sense of patriotism in them.”
The attraction is already lining up the 2012 Legends & Legacies Symposium Series, which will include “They Dared to Fly” featuring the Tuskegee Airmen on Feb. 9-11; “Breaking all Barriers: Amazing Women in American History” featuring WWII WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilots), March 2-3; “Unspoken Valor: The Bomber Crews of World War II,” April 13-14; “D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy,” May 11-12; “Reflections of Vietnam,” June 8-9; and “Letters Home: Love, Courage & Survival,” Oct. 12-13, 2012.
The cost of each Legends & Legacies Symposium Series is included with Fantasy of Flight admission, which is $28.95 for adults, and $14.95 for children ages 6-15. Children 5 and younger get in free.
For more information, call 863-984-3500 or log on to www.fantasyofflight.com.
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