Filmmaker Dan Hayes is the director of the documentary Honor Flight, in theaters Dec. 7, that follows four World War II veterans, a Wisconsin community, and Star and Stripes Honor Flight, Inc. as they work to fly thousands of World War II veterans to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Hayes, who is a native of Milwaukee, Wis., started the project in 2009, when, at the urging of his father, he took his camera to the World War II Memorial to film Star and Stripes Honor Flight, Inc. as they brought 200 World War II veterans to visit the Memorial. From this serendipitous beginning a film and a film company, Freethink Media, were born.
Hayes recently answered questions via email with Defense Media Network’s Steven Hoarn.
Steven Hoarn: Did you have any previous connection to the Greatest Generation before Honor Flight?
Dan Hayes: I did, but I didn’t have an opportunity to learn much about it. My grandfather Richard Hayes fought in the battle for Okinawa, but he died when I was very young so I never heard any firsthand accounts.
Honor Flight sounds very much like a labor of love on your part. What drew you to this project?
Absolutely. I kind of got addicted to it, because I could tell how meaningful the interviews were to the veterans and their families. It was a great feeling to ask questions of these older men and women, because so many of them didn’t realize that they had stories to share. Even if they didn’t see action during the war, they might have just served on a ship, they had fascinating stories. On many occasions the interview started with, “Well, I don’t think I have too much to say, but here it goes…” Then I wouldn’t ask a second question for 20 minutes. They would recount their whole story starting with Pearl Harbor all the way through the final days of the war and their postwar life. I loved it. Many of these stories were deeply personal and intimate. I felt connected to these men and woman and I was grateful for their trust. They felt empowered after our time together and that’s what really drew me in as a filmmaker as well as the rest of our team at Freethink Media.
When you took your camera down to the World War II Memorial on that Saturday morning in November 2009 did you have any idea Honor Flight would become what it has?
Definitely not. That’s probably because I didn’t know at that time how much this program and this trip meant to people. Not just the veterans, but all the volunteers as well. People are deeply affected by the program because it’s helped provide such important perspective on their lives. When you hear about the suffering of soldiers, away from their homes and families for years, seeing truly horrific things, getting the kids to school on time is a little less important given that context. So once I saw how meaningful it was to everyone, the growth of the scale of project made more sense. Our team at Freethink Media knew that we had to do everything we could to make a worthy film. To be honest, we just didn’t want to let the veterans down with an “OK” product. We had to pull out all the stops.
What was your previous experience or knowledge of the Honor Flight Network, of which Stars and Stripes Honor Flight (SSHF) is a part?
I actually didn’t have any experience with them and I didn’t know anything. I think this helped a great deal because I discovered what the program was by filming.
World War II veterans are known for their quiet stoicism, with many veterans in the film saying they never talked about their experiences in the war. What was it about Honor Flight (the film and the trip itself) that made them willing to open up?
That’s a great question. The vets all responded to the trip a bit differently. Some wear their uniforms and bring pictures of themselves from that era. They appear to have talked about the war with their families at a basic level. A vast majority, though, haven’t shared their stories, so that day, the stories start to come out. In the morning they’re typically a little more reserved and quiet, but by the afternoon they’ve seen and heard everyone else talking about their experiences and they’re more willing to open up.
I think a lot of it has to do with them going on this trip as a group. They come to understand that the other vets they’re with have seen some of the same types of things and have similar stories. It’s empowering and validating for them. And really, we’ve seen that the trip is just the spark. After the trip, they start to share more at home with their families. Many of the veterans go into schools and begin to tell their stories to kids in the local area. It’s the same with the film. Though a little reluctant to share at the beginning of the interviews, by the end I’ve got a new best friend. It’s pretty awesome to be a part of all that.