As Dale Olson sat on a couch inside the children's play area at Mesa's Superstition Springs Mall on Wednesday, about two dozen pre-school aged kids played and screamed while their parents took a break from holiday shopping.
They really didn't notice the 88-year-old man sitting amongst them and definitely didn't know his role in history, a member of what is considered the Greatest Generation that is rapidly being depleted in its ranks.
Olson, a Mesa resident, could've been mistaken for one of the children's grandfathers or great-grandfathers for that matter, as he sat and waited for the volunteers to open the Wingspan Air Heritage Museum near Sears so he could answer questions about the exhibits inside.
In fact, when a man sitting nearby watching his young daughter play overheard Olson's conversation about World War II with a reporter, he said, "Wow, we kind of have the History Channel going on here."
From 1942 to 1945, Olson served in the U.S. Army's 95th Infantry Division. He was a .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gunner in the second wave of soldiers during the European Campaign's crucial D-Day Invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
But when Olson volunteers at the museum on Saturday, he'll be helping to guide visitors who can meet up with a number of World War II veterans who served in the Pacific Theater and listen to their stories.
From 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., about a dozen veterans will be on hand at the Wingspan Air Heritage Museum's program, "Our Veterans of the South Pacific in World War II." Superstition Springs Mall is at 6555 E. Southern Ave.
Olson and others have plenty of stories to tell.
After the D-Day Invasion on the other side of the globe, Olson fought in many major battles: The Battle for Metz in France, Battle for the Rhur Pocket and the Battle of the Bulge.
Today, Olson is the lone surviving member of five brothers who served during World War II, all in the European Campaign and in Africa.
Decades after the war, Olson, wrote about his experiences in Europe and published them in a book. He said he often asked his brothers to share their experiences, but he couldn't get "a one" of them to do it.
"I wanted to compare my experiences to theirs, but they just told me to forget about it," Olson said. ‘It's nice to talk to the young ones about the war. They're the inquisitive ones."
Other stories Saturday will be shared by 1st Lt. Robert J. Jones, a Mesa resident who flew 29 missions as a pilot of a B-25 Bomber in the 345th Bomber Squadron's Air Apaches.
Jones' crew bombed Japanese island installations near the end of the war while their plane, "White Wing," frequently was shot at by anti-aircraft fire. It often ran low on fuel while helping to save other crews and once burned out an engine. Jones, who served in the Army Air Corps from January 1942 to August 1945, initially had been assigned to the 501st Bomb Squadron's Black Panthers. For his service, he earned an Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Jones, 89, today lives in the Apache Wells community in east Mesa. He said he flew the plane to about 150 feet in the air while bombing, "targets of opportunity."
"It was pretty scary," said Jones, a native of Montana. "I didn't think it was good to be shot at. It was hard for us to see what we were shooting back at. We'd get shot up a little bit each time out, but we always seemed to make it home."
The chance for shoppers and history buffs to meet the World War II veterans comes just three days after marking the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and when the average age of a World War II veteran is in his late 80s. They are dying off at an alarming rate - more than 1,000 a day, according to statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Olson who lives in the Sunland Village East retirement community in east Mesa, participated in a Pearl Harbor commemoration event this week at the neighborhood's community center.
Olson, who said, "I can't remember what I did yesterday," still has vivid memories of what he saw on the sands of Omaha Beach that turned bloody that day in June.
"My job was to protect the air rangers taking the cliffs," said Olson, also a Montana native. "I was on the ground. I was supposed to give them cover from enemy planes, but there were so many of our planes in the air, shooting was hard to do.
"The number of bodies laying around ... the medics tending to the wounded, you could hear the hollering, yelling, gunfire and everything. It was loud, We shot down enemy planes at night. There was a nest of German sharpshooters up in a church steeple on the cliffs. I took out the steeple. From there, it was just following the infantry."
Jeff Furnari, president of the Wingspan Air Heritage Foundation - a 5-year-old nonprofit organization whose museum is in its third year, said he became involved because his father, Bill Furnari, served in the Army during the Korean War and his daughter is an ex-Marine.
Amazingly, an average of 3,000 to 7,000 people pass through the museum each month, according to Furnari.
"One thing I noticed through the years is that there was a lot of focus on planes and artifacts from the war," Furnari said. "I thought there was a need to focus on the veterans. They're actually the ones who wrote history. It's programs like the one we're having on Saturday to make people aware of who these guys were. They were just kids when they served."