Veterans Day is the date the nation has set aside to remember those who served in the armed forces. Some will honor the dead with a somber visit to a national cemetery or a contemplative walk through a memorial. But with a little effort, you can also experience a bit of what it was like for U.S. soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen as they struggled to keep the Republic free.
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These activities, overall, span the military experience from World War II and the Korean War to Vietnam and Desert Storm.
Take off into the wild blue yonder. During the winter months, a group of organizations that have restored Flying Fortresses and other vintage aircraft makes the circuit of air shows across the South from Florida to California. The air shows offer an opportunity to see these giant airplanes in flight and to take a flight of your own.
The Yankee Air Museum, near Detroit, also offers flights in restored B-25s and B-17s when the weather warms up a bit in the North. It is a privilege - and a thrill - to fly into the sky strapped into the turret of a bomber or hunkered down in the bomb bay. The price for such forays runs about $400.
Some organizations offer flights in a fighter plane instead of a bomber. The plane is usually a T-6, the training plane for P-51 pilots. The P-51 had only one seat, so once the crew strapped the pilot in, he was on his own. Pilots trained in a two-seater like these.
Present-day passengers in a fighter plane will be allowed to take the yoke and fly the plane for about half the time in the air. Flights range from a half-hour to an hour, depending on the program. At the end of the flight, the pilot usually takes the plane through several air acrobatic moves, like loops and rolls, bringing a nervous grin to the passenger’s face. Video cameras are mounted in the cockpit and on the tail of the fighter, so you can come away with more than just memories.
For a calendar of air shows and demonstrations put on by several organizations throughout the year, check out the Web sites on the Tripso Veterans Day information page.
Visit the ocean blue. Those who love the Navy can head to Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts, which harbors the largest collection of naval warships in the world. Board the USS Massachusetts and see what life was like on the giant battleship that fought in 33 battles from Guadalcanal to Tokyo. Kids, young and old alike, can crank the hand wheels on “Big Mamie’s” 40 mm guns.
Crawl into the submarine USS Lionfish for a real eye-opener: Sailors of the “Silent Service” stayed in these cramped quarters for months. Exploring the destroyer USS Kennedy takes visitors back to the days of the Korean War, the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis - even the Space Age, since this ship was used in recovery operations for the first Mercury space capsule. PT boats (patrol boats like PT 109, the one captained by JFK) have their own museum that explains their part in warfare and coastal defense.
Other Navy vessels are open at many harbors along the coast. In Boston, visit the USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned ship in the Navy. In Groton, Connecticut, climb aboard the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. The aircraft carrier USS Intrepid is docked in New York City with a collection of other ships. The aircraft carrier USS Yorktown can be visited in Charleston, South Carolina.
Military museums are everywhere. The Army has more than 50 military museums across the country. Several of these museums focus on individual branches of the Army such as Armor, Infantry, Artillery and Engineers. Others deal with Army history and ordnance.
One of the newest Army museums is the U.S. Army Women’s Museum, which opened at Fort Lee, Virginia, in 2001. Other museums include the Patton Museum at Fort Knox, Kentucky; the Medal of Honor Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee; the Frontier Army Museum in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; the White Sands Missile Range Museum in New Mexico; and others in just about every corner of the country. These museums make enjoyable and affordable educational trips for the family when gasoline budgets are tight.
The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, takes visitors on a tour of the role of military aircraft from World War I through the Space Age. And the Navy has its spectacular National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida, with more than 170 aircraft, a motion simulator and an IMAX theater.
Finally, don’t forget the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and its new annex near Dulles Airport in Virginia. The collection of aircraft is unequaled anywhere on the planet and covers everything from the flight of the Wright brothers to breaking the speed of sound. The spacecraft and rockets on exhibit — from Mercury to Gemini to the space shuttle Enterprise — are awe-inspiring. The collection brings into especially sharp focus the nation’s determined efforts at space exploration.
Whether looping in an old fighter, clambering up a submarine ladder, turning the turret of a battleship or aiming the sights on a battle-scarred tank, these Veterans Day activities will bring a deeper appreciation of the struggles and sacrifices our armed forces endured in the name of freedom.
Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Leocha's forum.