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Veterans' Stories Bring Military Museums to Life

November 09, 2000|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Southland museums that house fighter planes, Navy vessels and a wealth of arti-facts and information are good destinations this weekend for anyone interested in getting in the spirit of Veterans Day. And two of them--the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica and the March Field Air Museum in Riverside--have special ceremonies planned to honor veterans.

But no museum piece--from the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero at the Planes of Fame in Chino to the test aircraft at the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum at Edwards Air Force Base to the experimental stealth fighter at the Western Museum of Flight in Hawthorne--is as treasured as the veterans themselves. And on Veterans Day--and most any day, for that matter--vets can be found at these museums sharing their stories and expertise.

Jack Whitmeyer, for example, recalls Oct. 13, 1944, as if it were yesterday. His ship, the Canberra, was anchored off Formosa (now Taiwan) when it came under attack by Japanese planes.

"We knocked down four of them, but the fourth one had already launched his torpedo," says the retired sailor, adding that it took two weeks to tow the ship in for repairs, but the sturdy vessel stayed afloat.

Today, the 79-year-old veteran volunteers two days a week at the L.A. Maritime Museum, where he's surrounded by models of Navy vessels and other artifacts of Naval and maritime history. "There's a lot of camaraderie" among the veterans who volunteer, he says. "Mostly we talk about the good things, even though horrible things happened."

* L.A. Maritime Museum, Berth 84, Harbor Boulevard and 6th Street, San Pedro. Open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., but closed Mondays and federal holidays (including Friday for the federal observance of the Veterans Day holiday). $1 donation requested. Information: (310) 548-7618 or http://lamaritimemuseum.org.

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Serving aboard a merchant marine Liberty or Victory ship during World War II was more dangerous than serving on a battleship or destroyer, insists Bill Privett, a retired Navy petty officer and gunner's mate who volunteers aboard the hulking Lane Victory. Privett, 79, says the merchant marine ships transported fuel and munitions in World War II, carried thousands of Korean refugees in 1950 and hauled supplies to soldiers in Vietnam. During World War II, they suffered heavy casualties.

"They were just too dang slow," Privett says.

The Lane Victory--which was destined for the scrap pile when 15 former merchant marines bought and restored it--is the only Victory ship that remains operational of the hundreds built during World War II. Now a floating museum, the working ship offers tours, including the engine room as well as displays of artifacts, photos and even military jeeps. The ship takes three public excursions each summer.

* Lane Victory, Berth 94 in Los Angeles Harbor, San Pedro. Open daily, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., closed Christmas. $3; ages 15 and younger, $1. One hour free parking. (310) 519-9545 or http://www.lanevictoryship.com.

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Military air power will be honored at March Field Air Museum, where veterans and historic aircraft will be on hand for the Open Aircraft Weekend, Saturday and Sunday.

"You can get a good history lesson here," says Shayne Meder, a retired 20-year Air Force veteran and manager of aircraft restoration at the museum. Many of the volunteers are veterans who put in the hours to lovingly restore the aircraft.

Meder, at 41 one of the younger vets, says Veterans Day is a special day at the museum, when the public gets to go inside some aircraft and hear war stories from the volunteers who actually flew them.

The Blackbird spy plane is the public's favorite, Meder says. "It was so secret for so many years, you couldn't even look at it. When you did see them land, you couldn't get close; they'd send them right into a hangar."

Veterans Day festivities begin Saturday at 6 a.m. with tethered balloon rides, followed by aircraft displays. At 11 a.m., the museum and the nearby National Cemetery will offer a joint salute to veterans (a free shuttle will take passengers across I-215 to the cemetery and back). At 5 p.m., a special salute to Korean War veterans will take place at the cemetery. The 35-acre property also houses the P-38 Museum and the 475th Fighter Group, featuring artifacts, photographs, records and memories of the U.S. Army Air Force unit.

* March Field Air Museum, 22550 Van Buren Blvd., Riverside. Saturday, 6 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. $10 per car. Information: (909) 697-7640.

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Another Veterans Day celebration gets underway Sunday at the Museum of Flying. The Tuskeegee Airmen (an all-African American unit), the Buffalo Soldiers and Women Airforce Service Pilots will be represented at the event, which will also feature World War II aircraft displays and ROTC presentations.

* Museum of Flying, 2772 Donald Douglas Loop North, Santa Monica. Donation: $7; seniors, $5; ages 3-16, $3. Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (310) 392-8822.

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