A rare part of history soon will be rolling into the Commemorative Air Force Arizona Wing Aviation Museum at Mesa's Falcon Field for one day and one day only.
"Honoring Our History," a traveling World War I exhibit, will be on display Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. inside "The Big Rig" - a tractor-trailer parked outside the Commemorative Air Force Arizona Wing Aviation Museum in east Mesa. The rig will showcase an array of artifacts from the war - known for a time as both the "Big One" and the "War to End All Wars" - which will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2014.
Falcon Field is at 2017 N. Greenfield Road at the intersection of McKellips Road in east Mesa, south of Loop 202. The event is free, and the rig is accessible for those with disabilities.
The exhibit, which will be arriving from Albuquerque as part of a 75-city national tour and 75th anniversary of its sponsor, Waddell and Reed and its affiliate, Ivy Funds, one of the country's oldest mutual fund investment firms, has been done with a personal touch. The firm's founders, Chauncey Waddell and Cameron Reed were World War I veterans who served as pilots during the war. The war lasted from 1914 to 1918 an left 116,708 American soldiers dead and 205,690 wounded fighting to make the world a safer place for democracy.
Like the nation's only museum dedicated to the history of World War I (containing 60,000 artifacts), Waddell and Reed is headquartered in Kansas City, and as Waddell and Reed branched out to other cities, so has the museum, so to speak - on wheels.
When "The Big Rig" arrives at Falcon Field on Tuesday, it will be escorted by the Patriot Riders motorcycle group and various American Legions throughout the Valley east on Loop 202 from Tempe Marketplace.
The exhibit in Mesa will feature 66 different artifacts, including uniforms, weapons, flags and other equipment - including Waddell's flight uniform and flight log book.
"I think that World War I is becoming one of the forgotten wars," said Bennie Schmidt, who works as a financial advisor for Waddell and Reed's office in east Phoenix and is helping colleague Pete Valadez of the firm's Scottsdale office plan the event.
"It's so unusual to see this stuff," Schmidt added. "They are national treasures. We hope to create an environment to raise an awareness of World War I, and the museum, and to help benefit local museums and cultural institutions during a time when so many of them across the nation have faced budget cuts."
President Woodrow Wilson first declared neutrality for the United States. However, Germany later goaded the U.S. into the war in 1917 by attacking cargo ships trying to deliver goods to Britain, an ally of the U.S.
The war began in early August, 1914 and ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, ending most hostilities. However, an important armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, and from that date arose Armistice Day - now best known as Veterans Day. American forces during World War I first numbered 100,000, but later grew to nearly 5 million, according to statistics.
Around the anniversaries of major battles during World War II, especially Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Iwo Jima and the Battle of the Bulge, we often hear how quickly our nation's ranks of veterans from that war are being depleted. By average, they are in their late 80s and more than 1,000 of them die each day, according to statistics the Veterans Administration Office in Washington, D.C.
There are no longer any surviving veterans of World War I. Frank Woodruff Buckles, a 16-year-old corporal who lied about his age to join the Army was the last doughboy; he was the last known surviving U.S. World War I veteran when he died at age 110 on Feb. 27, 2011.
Buckles, who drove an ambulance behind the battle lines in France, died peacefully at his farmhouse in West Virginia, but was given quite the military send-off at Arlington National Cemetery amid the cracks of rifles as flags across the nation were hung at half-staff as he was laid to rest near his Commander, Gen. John J. "Blackjack" Pershing.
When Buckles was among those who returned home from the war, he said a local YMCA rewarded him with a six-month membership, somewhat of a luxury then, decades before American veterans returned home with much more fanfare and received far more than a pat on the back.
When a national Associated Press story ran in the Tribune in 2006 about the four surviving U.S. World War I veterans, I wasted no time in speaking with three of them over the telephone and took notes from the trio, who all were older than 100, just to keep their stories for posterity.
However, I did not interview Buckles as he remained the last man standing who fought overseas and was protected by family members because he was being contacted by numerous media outlets after the story ran.
I am ashamed to say I cannot recall the names of the three men I interviewed who also served — but I knew one lived in Ohio, and another one lived in Florida. To date, I only kept their stories in a notebook now stored somewhere in a box. I’m sure I’ll better preserve their stories by writing them down from the notes I took sometime in the future. I recall sharing a laugh with the veteran in Florida when he said he could still button his own shirt in the morning after I asked him how he was doing.
The veteran from Ohio had been stationed at a small base on an island on Lake Erie; another had served in an ROTC student program and said he only mopped the floor of the barracks and was adamant that he was not a hero.
But they were among the last to serve with a generation that no longer exists — they all have since passed as well — and deserve to be remembered for making the world a safer place for democracy. We should learn more about them and I, too, should remember those three World War veterans I interviewed a little better, albeit I did so in short notice in a quick attempt of preserving part of American history.
Although many of the items in the "Honoring Our History" exhibit are approaching 100 years old, the components that present it and tell the war's story are state of the art.
"There will be interactive technology of videos, audio tracks and people will get to experience what it's like to be stuck in a tight place - a trench or a foxhole," Schmidt said. "It will be pretty cool. Thousands of people have visited the exhibit in other cities, and we're hoping to have that many people in Mesa as well."
Mike Sakal's column runs on Fridays. Contact him at (480) 898-6533 or firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Mike Sakal, East Valley Tribune, 1620 W. Fountainhead Pkwy., Suite 219, Tempe, AZ 85282.