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The Greatest Generation Memorial to Savor

It happened in Minnesota, not the South Pacific.

Heat boiled up from the sundrenched tarmac. Drop a handful of popcorn kernels and the air would soon be filled with tiny explosions.
 
A small squad of men dressed in Army battle fatigues lounged in an open-sided tent, shooting the breeze, cleaning their M1 Garand rifles. An Army staff car, a 1941 Plymouth, sat nearby. Beneath a makeshift shelter, a sweat-stained Army cook worked a trio of gasoline-fueled stoves.
 
A Grumman Avenger suddenly roared past, low to the earth, the thunder of its engine thumping against eardrums. The torpedo bomber jerked its nose upward and swiftly disappeared into the hazy ether.
 
A World War II encampment on a remote South Pacific island? Nope. This scenario unfolded recently amidst the corn and soybean fields near Granite Falls, Minnesota.
 
The Ray Fagen Memorial Air Show celebrates the Greatest Generation. In addition to a stunning collection iconic of war birds, the event featured a plethora of mobile military hardware, from a Harley-Davidson motorcycle to a humungous Sherman tank. It was a bit incongruous to see such a large array of WW II weaponry out on the western prairies of the Gopher State.
 
I spoke with some of the reenactors who helped bring the event to life. One of most unusual uniforms I spotted was that of an Australian army private, which was worn by a guy named Bob. Bob’s friend, Katie, was decked out in WW II-era U.S. Marine Corps fatigues. Bob and Katie are from St. Paul.
 
“I’ve been a WW II reenactor for 27 years,” said Bob. “I’m a history buff and have two grandfathers who served in the war. Reenacting is my way of staying connected with our past and honoring my grandfathers.”
 
I meandered into a hangar/ museum to escape the punishing sun and enjoy the exhibits. An immaculate Rolls-Royce Merlin engine sat off to one side. As I gaped at the 1,700-horsepower V-12 behemoth, a couple of older guys debated whether its spin-on oil filters were a factory feature or a modern adaptation. They decided that it was a contemporary add-on. Good to have that settled.
 
A short time later, the throaty rumble of several Merlin engines reverberated throughout the airfield as a quartet of P-51 Mustang fighters lifted off. Many, me included, think that the Mustang is the slinkiest piston-powered flying machine ever made.
 
A middle-aged man standing nearby wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of a Mustang, along with its serial number and other oddly specific information. It’s always nice to meet a fellow enthusiast, so I struck up a conversation.
 
Jim is from Waukesha, Wisconsin. His interest in Mustangs is slightly larger than mine, much in the way that the Queen Mary is slightly larger than a dinghy.
 
I know this is so because Jim actually owns a Mustang.
 
Jim knew the entire history of his Mustang. Where it was manufactured, when and where it served. That after the war it was sent to Sweden and later sold to the Dominican Republic. How it had crashed and then languished, undisturbed, for decades.
 
“I don’t own a Mustang so much as I own a collection of parts that might someday be remade back into a Mustang,” Jim said. “After crashing and burning and being exposed to the salt air for all those years, there wasn’t much left.”
 
I asked Jim about the roots of his P-51 fascination.
 
“Dad flew Mustangs for the Air Force and told me all about them. I’ve been obsessed with the P-51 since I was about 10. Rebuilding a Mustang has always been my dream. It’s also an insanely expensive and time-consuming project. I’ll never finish mine in my lifetime, but maybe I can get it a bit further down the road for the next guy.”
 
In the museum, I noticed an elderly gentleman examining a sculpture of a landing craft. His cap said U.S. Navy.
 
Leo Croteau, 93, lives in Champlin, Minnesota. I asked about his service during the war.
 
“Shortly after I finished basic training, I was sent to New Caledonia,” Leo said. “Our task force sailed the South Pacific, going from island to island and making landings. I drove one of these,” said Leo, indicating the landing craft. “Sometimes we would make a fake landing to draw enemy fire while the real landing happened on the other side of the island.”
 
Leo stared briefly into the distance, as if he were searching for a face lost in the crowd. “I’ve seen a lot of fireworks in my day,” he murmured.
 
I thanked Leo for his service. And I’m grateful that the Greatest Generation made it possible to vicariously relive history on a sultry Minnesota afternoon.

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