Ted Huetter/Museum of Flight
En español | In 1975, Cmdr. Vern Jumper helped manage the rescue of more than 3,000 Vietnamese refugees who were flown onto the USS Midway during the fall of Saigon. Forty-four years later, Jumper still serves on the Midway. The aircraft carrier is a San Diego tourist attraction and Jumper — who worked on the ship as an air traffic controller, otherwise known as an air boss — is one of nearly 500 volunteer docents, most of whom are vets.
Veterans Day is November 11, but you can meet vets like Jumper volunteering year-round at museums, monuments and historical sites across the country. Here are six places where you can talk with vets, learn from them and tell them, “Thanks."
Battleship New Jersey
Camden, New Jersey
The battleship USS New Jersey fought in some of World War II's fiercest Pacific battles, from the assault on the Marshall Islands to the battle of Okinawa, and it later saw action in Korea and Vietnam. Since 2001, the massive ship — it's nearly three football fields long — has been open to visitors. Popular attractions include the “Steam to Speed” Engineering Tour, which takes visitors through the engine room, and the Fire Power Tour, which focuses on how weapons were launched and tracked. You can even climb inside a 16-inch gun turret. Veterans will guide you through the vessel, share stories and answer questions (John Quinesso, a WWII Navy veteran, is in the Captain's Cabin every Thursday morning).
On Dec. 7, 1941, Sterling Cale had finished his shift at the Pearl Harbor medical dispensary when Japanese planes began bombing the base. Cale and his comrades dove into the enflamed water to help rescue sailors. These days, the 97-year-old Cale, a longtime Pearl Harbor volunteer, still meets periodically with visitors. Pearl Harbor survivors used to greet tourists in the visitor center, but as the number of WWII vets has declined, veterans from other wars have taken their place. You can also hear the oral histories of survivors through a narrated self-guided tour at the USS Arizona Memorial, where oil still bubbles to the water's surface from the sunken ship.
National Museum of the Marine Corps
Many of the docents and other volunteers at the National Museum of the Marine Corps are veterans: You'll find them stationed throughout the galleries and they also lead tours. The vets and exhibits explain the Corps’ 240-year history, which dates back to the Revolutionary War. Artifacts include not only uniforms, weapons and vehicles (such as tanks) but also a baton presented to composer John Philip Sousa and an Oscar won by the Corps for a WWII documentary. The building itself is breathtaking: Aircraft hover above a grand, circular hall, which is topped by a 210-foot spire that evokes the famous photo of Marines raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima. And yes, that flag is on display at the museum.
San Diego, California
The USS Midway is not just an aircraft carrier: It's a floating museum loaded with exhibits and artifacts. On the flight deck, you'll find 26 restored aircraft — you can sit in one of the cockpits — and enjoy sweeping views of San Diego Bay and Coronado. You can also wander the narrow bowels of the ship and visit locations such as the bridge, kitchen, pilot ready rooms and sickbay, while listening to an audio tour narrated by Midway sailors. Docents are stationed throughout the ship and roughly 95 percent are veterans. Jack Ensch and Will Abbott, who flew combat missions from the Midway in Vietnam, frequently chat with visitors on the flight deck. Both men were shot down and became prisoners of war until their release in 1973. Vets like Ensch and Abbott can you tell you about their experiences as well as the ship: One of the most popular docent-led talks focuses on how aircraft take off and land on a carrier.
Museum of Flight
The city's Museum of Flight offers a variety of must-see attractions, including more than 130 spacecraft and aircraft (such as the Lockheed M-21 Blackbird, which flew at Mach 3), 3D flight movies, a Space Shuttle trainer, and a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park. And yet the star attraction may be the WWII vets who volunteer. Want to hear their stories? On Mondays and Thursdays, 97-year-old Navy vet Paul Weaver talks to visitors in the Personal Courage Wing's WWII section about his experiences on the USS Lexington. On Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., former B-17 pilot Dick Nelms, 97, is at the Aviation Pavilion. And on Thursday mornings, you're likely to find docent Jim Marich, a 94-year-old B-29 former flight engineer, sharing his expertise. One veteran docent is typically available each day to lead a tour. “You can talk to a B-17 pilot about what is was like to fly missions over Germany or another pilot who flew jets or helicopters during Vietnam,” says museum spokesman Ted Huetter.
There's a good chance you'll meet vets at sites such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but your odds are higher on certain significant days. At the Korean War Veterans Memorial, for example, veterans attend four annual ceremonies in large numbers: Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and two events marking the beginning and end of the war (June 25 and July 27). Your best option, however, may be DC Military Tours, a veteran-owned-and-operated company that offers tours of military sites, bases and other locations. Veteran-led tours include not only Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon but also Mount Vernon and John Wilkes Booth's escape route. Most tours also feature lunch at an area officers’ club. Interested in a road trip? The company runs day-trip tours from D.C. to Gettysburg, providing a veteran's perspective on the Civil War battle.